Dr Maximo Torero Cullen
Chief Economist, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations
As COVID-19 forces the world to rethink systems of trade and commerce, we need to ensure that the most vulnerable are not forgotten.
The fact is we are not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030. Far from it. The number of hungry people in the world has been rising steadily for years and COVID- 19 has further compounded the problem.
Today, 690 million people are going hungry – that’s nearly 1 in 10 people. If we add to that all other forms of malnutrition, we’re talking about 2 billion people, and if we include the people that cannot afford healthy diets we are talking of 3 billion people.
An additional 87 to 132 million people may experience food insecurity as a direct result of the pandemic.
Plagues of locusts in East Africa and South America and, of course, COVID-19 have added to issues of climate change, conflict and economic slowdown. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that an additional 87 to 132 million people may experience food insecurity as a direct result of the pandemic.
Access to food is now our main concern
As we assess the problem, our main concern is now food access. Food systems have been shown to be resilient, but as we move into global recession, the most vulnerable in the poorest countries are at greatest risk.
COVID-19 has also triggered changes in our food systems, notably the rise of e-commerce and increased automation. While developed countries have invested in adapting their systems, many developing nations don’t have the capacity.
As change is pushed forward without sufficient planning, we’re already seeing the negative impact on many labour markets and particularly on females, who account for the majority of workers in processing and packaging.
Critical opportunity to protect those most vulnerable
Stakeholders at all stages of the supply chain need to work together to reverse these negative trends. First and foremost, we need to accelerate efforts to ensure the most vulnerable have access to food, by identifying hot spots.
We also need to improve efficiencies and reduce loss and waste – especially from harvest to wholesale. Programmes to improve infrastructure are already underway, but it’s key that they benefit everyone.
Trade needs to be encouraged; one of every five calories that we eat has crossed at least one international border.
Global and intra-regional trade also needs to be encouraged. One of every five calories that we eat has crossed at least one international border. Countries that depend on imported food are especially vulnerable, and there is more that can be done to encourage inter-regional trade.
Of course, change needs to be underpinned by policies and tariff systems that support everyone. It’s up to us to rise to the challenge posed by COVID-19 to work as a global community for the good of everyone.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of FAO