One of the many repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a surge in hunger rates around the world.
Food systems have been disrupted, countless families have been unable to afford groceries, and schools, where children could reliably receive nutritious meals, have been closed. As a result, progress on Global Goal 2: Ending Hunger has been derailed.
Now, many countries are desperately trying to avert famine-like conditions, while also ensuring that the most vulnerable populations have access to nutritious food.
The pandemic has painfully highlighted what has been plainly clear for years now: The global hunger crisis, much like poverty, is wholly preventable.
Paul Newnham, director of the SDG2 Advocacy Hub, spoke with Global Citizen about the impact of COVID-19 on food security and how we can overcome the global hunger crisis.
Photo by Diana Patient
Global Citizen: How has the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the global hunger crisis?
Paul Newnham: Six hundred and ninety million people were hungry or undernourished in 2019, and the COVID-19 pandemic could add up to 132 million more to the undernutrition estimates. With government priorities shifting to meet the pressures of the pandemic, international aid budgets have been cut, reprioritized, or shifted — this threatens many vulnerable people living on the breadline, and dependent on these international organizations for their livelihoods.
What stress points did the pandemic reveal in the global food system?
Good food is vulnerable to disruption. The pandemic highlighted the fragility of global food systems: Due to lockdowns, supermarket shelves were empty while stocks of food stuff were sitting idle in factories, milk was being poured down the drain, and food was left to rot in fields. This highlighted the interconnectedness of the system, too.
The increased risk factor of COVID-19 for overweight and obese people has also drawn light to the health crises fueled by the lack of access and affordability of healthy, nutritious foods.
How can countries better safeguard their food systems to face future crises?
Good food makes progress possible. It has to be a whole systems approach, starting with the future in mind. What future do we all want? A future where we have good food for all. How do we achieve that? A complete transformation of the whole food systems — from farmer right through to consumer.
Food systems need to be resilient to withstand shocks and increase their sustainability to prevent future shocks. To do this, countries must take a systems approach; starting at the farm level — by supporting farmers to practice sustainable practices, ending at the consumer level — by supporting healthy and sustainable food choices. This will support the food systems transformation needed, to a food system that serves people and planet.
WFP delivers rations of high energy biscuits to school children's homes now that schools are closed due to COVID-19.
The pandemic has increased the number of people living in famine-like conditions. Can you, broadly speaking, lay out how humanitarian groups are assisting these populations?
Good food saves lives. In 2020, the World Food Programme (WFP) leveraged its extensive supply chain capacity and logistics expertise to support the health and humanitarian community by quickly putting in place a “Common Services” structure designed to be flexible and driven by partner requirements.
WFP is urgently acting to avert catastrophe and protect past gains through strengthening community resilience. For example, scaling up life-saving food and nutrition assistance.
There is great urgency to get the right nutrition to pregnant women, and kids under the age of 2, because even short bouts of malnutrition in that 1,000-day window risks irreversible health and cognitive and physical development impacts, with the risk of making a short term crisis into an intergenerational, long-term crisis.
Save the Children launched Protect a Generation, our global response to the COVID-19 crisis, to act quickly to prevent, mitigate and respond to the devastating impact of the pandemic. The response has four priorities underpinned by our global commitment to quality, accountability, and partnership: mitigate the impact of the pandemic on child survival; help children learn, stay safe, and return to school; support family survival and food security through safety nets; [and] keep children, families, and communities safe.
Smallholder farmers produce a significant portion of the world’s food supply. How can countries better support them to both protect against climate change and improve livelihoods?
Good food begins with farmers. We have to respect their importance in society and include them at the table when finding solutions to improve livelihoods and protect them against climate change. We also have to incentivize [farmers] with a good "for people and planet" mindset: Invest in farmers who are farming biodiverse produce that is more nutritious, better equipped for climatic irregularities, and regenerates the soil.
There needs to be investment in research to find innovative ways to ensure we produce enough food that respects the natural environment and is within the planetary boundaries.
Groups such as CGIAR need to radically scale up so they can drive solutions on many food system issues. Investment at the farm level and investment in storage and refrigerator systems will help reduce food waste and create a more stable income for these producers. Ensuring these smallholder farmers have access to markets is also crucial. Improving smallholder farmers' livelihoods and making it a desirable profession is critical to attract our farmers of the future.
Farmers working on filed near Hanoi, Vietnam.
Malnutrition and undernutrition affect more than 2 billion people globally, with rates rising annually. What can be done to improve overall nutrition?
Good food is nutritious. There is a double burden of nutrition: As countries develop they have access to cheap, highly processed foods thus increasing the rates of overweight and [obesity], thus there needs to be better policies to access safe, nutritious, and affordable foods. These foods also need to be made desirable.
We produce enough food to feed 10 billion but we waste so much, and still 2 billion are undernourished, so there needs to be a shift in distribution of food.
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