The world has been so focused on COVID-19 over the past few months that we seemed to have forgotten another alarming global issue – hunger. In 2019, almost 690 million people went hungry, demonstrating the chronic problem of hunger that shot up by 60 million from five years prior. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the hunger problem all over the world, especially with the lockdowns and restrictions that each country has imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The perfect storm
The fight against COVID-19 is pushing many more millions of people into the brink of hunger and possibly, death. Experts predict that 130 million more people will be at risk of acute hunger by year’s end due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Executive Director of UN World Food Programme David Beasley called it a global humanitarian catastrophe. He said, “At the same time while dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic, we are on the brink of a hunger pandemic.”
Armed conflict, pest infestation, natural disasters, climate change, and the economic crisis are just some of the factors that have contributed to global hunger in the last five years. Now, COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem. Funding cuts to aid nutrition programmes, movement restrictions, among others, limit the availability of agricultural products and cause food prices to soar. These are just some of the factors that worsen the current food insecurity problem.
Asia and Africa are continents with the world’s worst hunger problem. Taking a closer look at Yemen, about 2.4 million children under the age of five are malnourished and almost 24,000 are at an increased risk of dying by the end of this year if no urgent funding from the international humanitarian community is received. Sara Beysolow Nyanti of UNICEF Yemen says, “We cannot overstate the scale of this emergency as children, in what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, battle for survival as COVID-19 takes hold.”
But hunger doesn’t just affect the world’s poorest countries. More than 20% of households in the United States are experiencing food insecurity due to the pandemic, according to the COVID Impact Survey results. Food insecurity happens when a household cannot provide enough food for its members due to a lack of resources. COVID-19 has also left many families going hungry in America, proving that the pandemic has aggravated the hunger problem and it’s affecting poor and rich nations alike.
The Road to Zero Hunger 2030 Derailed
A part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to end hunger by 2030. Member countries have envisioned to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” Countries have also laid out the pathways to achieve this target.
Unfortunately, the UN recently announced that “the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger would surpass 840 million by 2030.”
Furthermore, the UN estimates that around 300,000 people will die from starvation every day in a span of three months if major changes are not implemented. This could very well exceed the number of people who would die from the coronavirus, making it an equally grave concern today. This has prompted the World Food Programme to appeal to member nations to act swiftly and aid in funding US$1.9 billion so that they can protect the most vulnerable communities and avoid “facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.”
Time is running out.
A call to action
Given the dire situation brought about by the COVID-19 and the hunger pandemic, the World Food Programme identified three steps that need to be done immediately:
- call for peace or global ceasefire,
- swift access to the most vulnerable communities, and
- to support funding for humanitarian assistance.
These actions cannot be delayed. However, there should also be a long term approach to ensure food sustainability and push on with our goal to end hunger. Responses should be comprehensive, multi-sectoral, and adapted according to the specific context of each country.
Switch to healthy and sustainable food systems
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the gaps in our food sufficiency agenda. The problem is not really about the lack of food because our planet is capable of producing food that’s more than enough for all of its inhabitants (in fact, one-third of all food produced is wasted). The problem lies in the broken food system that’s causing the global hunger epidemic. There is a need for fairer, more robust, and sustainable food systems.
So here are the pathways to end hunger, adapted from the United Nations’ Zero Hunger Challenge.
Invest in local agriculture. We’re referring to our farmers or small-scale producers who belong to the most vulnerable sector of our societies. Governments should support local farmers in terms of capital, technology, training, and everything they need to increase sustainable food production and improve their livelihoods.
Minimize food loss. There is so much food waste from production to consumption. Roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food was put to waste in 2019. This also damages the environment because of the harmful emissions and wasteful use of land and water resources to produce those food. There is a need to educate producers, retailers, and consumers to avoid waste.
Boost social protection programmes. Poverty drives millions of people to go hungry. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “An extra 148 million people will fall into extreme poverty if the global economy shrinks by five percent this year. It is this population’s access to food that most urgently needs to be protected.” People need money to be able to buy food. Livelihood and social amelioration programs should be geared towards the most vulnerable and marginalised sectors of the society to ensure that they have the means to provide healthy food for their families.
Accessible food supply chain. Local and global food trade should be unimpeded so that food can reach the people. Upgraded highway and railway services, airport and seaport infrastructure, as well as the integration of information and communication are all needed for efficient and effective food supply chain management. Governments need to come up with fair policies that would protect not just the business sector but the consumers as well.
Sustainable practices now. Any talk about sustainability involves environment-friendly practices. Governments should give incentives for sustainable food production methods and disincentivize those who continue to use practices that endanger people’s health and the pollute the environment. This also involves the smart use of information and technology to contribute to a better and healthier planet. Because when we take care of Mother Nature, she will nurture us with all our needs, including the future generations, so that no one needs to feel hunger ever again.
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Cover image of members of the St John’s Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Sherman, Texas, hosting a drive- up food pantry during COVID-19 on April 1, 2020. Photo by Sara Carpenter.