One of the few positives that has come from lockdowns around the world is that many people in the west are experiencing the joys of cooking for the first time. However, while they are doing so, lockdowns are increasing hunger in the developing world. Millions of migrants are stranded in cities without income in India, and are unable to pay for food. Similarly, millions of school children are missing out on their only meal because their school is closed.
In contrast, in the wealthier northern hemisphere, closed schools are but a minor inconvenience. Thanks to robust supply chains, food is easily available in supermarkets and students have access to e-learning modules and classes. In the global south though, it’s an entirely different story. Without schools, children no longer have access to the only hot meal they normally get.
In 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 820 million people went to bed hungry, and this number had been increasing each year. This is despite the fact that in 2015 the world had committed to ending all forms of hunger by 2030. The vast majority of the hungry live in Africa and Asia, where governments are weaker and starvation has been a long ongoing battle.
Global Food Insecurity
Even before the coronavirus, the The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had recorded the strong impact economic slowdowns have on food security. The body noted that “Economic slowdowns and downturns often lead to a rise in unemployment and decline in wages and incomes, challenging access to food and essential social services for the poor.” Conflict was highlighted as another important aspect – “In 2018, conflict and insecurity were the major driver of food crises in 21 countries – 14 of them experienced deep economic recessions.”
The FAO is the UN body tasked with monitoring food insecurity, malnourishment and hunger globally. In its 2019 ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ report, the body estimated that “9.2% of the world’s population (roughly 700 million) were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2018.” The body also noted that – while more people in the world are going hungry, the number of obese and overweight adults has increased across all regions.
In 2020 that situation has only got worse and, as always, it’s the most vulnerable that are hardest hit. On March 17, the body issued a press release highlighting the scale of hunger amongst school children as a result of the lockdown. The FAO believes 85 million children in Latin America and the Carribean have lost access to their only hot meal due to school closures. “The suspension of school feeding programs will pose a challenge to the food security and nutritional status of many children,” the release said.
The body is calling on governments to implement measures to ensure that children still have access to food, suggesting recommendations such as; abolishing taxes on basic food items and food delivery via mobile units.
Global Supply Chain Inequalities
Global food supplies rely upon a very delicate supply chain, one that favours wealthy developed nations. However, due to the coronavirus, this global supply chain is facing massive disruption. Due to port closures, logistics hurdles and border restrictions, almost all goods face delays in being sent. This affects not only food products but also fertilisers, pesticides and other agricultural necessities.
Add to this the fact that many agricultural workers have been placed in lockdowns and the result is that crops are left rotting in fields. To put this in perspective, Africa saw a 12% reduction in food production during the ebola crisis, a number that could be dwarfed if labour mobility is threatened further by lockdowns.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) in April noted that “the cumulative effects of such market disruption, while not dramatic yet, will likely become apparent as early as this month.” The wealthier north might be able to weather the storm, but in the developing world, it is a matter of life and death.
The problem of supply chains that are weighted in favour of the wealthier nations is exacerbated by the problem that many poor nations are dependent on the export of commodities. The United Nations Development Programme notes that “Since low-income countries depend mostly on just a few commodities for the bulk share of their export earnings, commodity price fluctuations directly affect the indices of poverty.”
A report by the UNCTAD found that “Commodity dependence affects 85% of least developed countries.” The FAO found that between 1995-2017, 102 nations are classified as high commodity dependent, i.e. their economies were driven by just one or two commodities. The reason this matters is because it increases the vulnerability of countries to world price swings.
As a result of this, any drop in global prices or demand, not only affects the money they receive for the products themselves but it also negatively affects their currency value. This results in inflation, making it harder for people to buy basic food supplies leading to more hunger.
The coronavirus has already crippled the global economy, and if we don’t watch out, it could take out the food industry as well. For the developed world, this might be a minor inconvenience, but in the developing world, it will exacerbate the issues caused by decades of famine, war, natural disasters and disease. It could set the world back decades, at a time when humanity is facing its gravest battle yet – climate change.