October 16 is World Food Day, observed by all United Nations member states for raising awareness of issues regarding human nutrition. It was established in 1979 to honor the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on October 16, 1945. This is the 75th anniversary of that event, which took place when the world was left devastated by the Second World War, with millions of people suffering from dire food shortages. Horrific starvation and deficient food supplies were very common during the Great Depression, the war, and its aftermath. The FAO was thus quickly instituted and has been very busy ever since.
Within the last three-quarters of a century, humanity has made enormous strides in ending hunger and improving nutrition. After 1990, there was a huge decline in poverty and malnutrition across the world, with the number of people living in extreme poverty falling by more than a billion. Catastrophic famines had become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, food insecurity started to be inflamed across the world in 2008 due to biofuel mandates, conflicts, weather disturbances, and economic downturns. Progress in ending poverty began to stall in 2015 and world hunger became a particularly big danger in 2019. And now, 2020 has brought absolute catastrophe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been called the greatest global crisis since World War 2 by the UN chief (https://www.bloombergquint.com/coronavirus-outbreak/covid19-pandemic-most-challenging-crisis-since-world-war-ii-un-chief) and, as is often the case with crises, one of its main impacts is on food security. Most countries are attempting to fight the virus by locking down, restricting the movement and interaction of people and thereby economic activity. As a result, food is often failing to reach its destination. Resources for food production have been restricted. Even in the absence of these harsh responses, extensive spread of the virus itself can drive hunger by knocking people out of the workforce in huge numbers through illness and subjecting them to costly medical care. A severe global economic downturn has been caused by the pandemic, greatly exacerbating the risk of food shortages everywhere, even where the virus itself is not yet a big issue. It is clear that, during this pandemic, hunger is as big a threat to human lives as the disease COVID-19 itself.
A whole slew of other troubles doesn’t help either. Due to heavy rainfall in East Africa in late 2019, an outbreak of desert locusts (one of civilization’s oldest threats to food security) intensified into the worst upsurge since the late 1980s and ongoing swarms have inflicted major agricultural losses in dozens of countries in Africa and Asia. There are also major locust outbreaks in other parts of the world right now, such as a severe outbreak of African Migratory Locusts in southern Africa. Plus, the world is seeing a spike in extreme weather events this year, with negative ramifications for food production. Southern Africa itself is recovering from unprecedented drought in 2019 and early 2020. There is the devastation inflicted on Australia by its Black Summer, monsoon floods devastating India and submerging a third of Bangladesh, record-breaking floods in Sudan, the worst ever western US fire season and severe drought emerging across the country, China’s flooding, and severe drought and wildfires in Argentina. In addition, military tensions and conflicts are rising across the world, which has great potential to jeopardize food security.
Poverty is now rising dramatically all over the world for the first time in decades. Just a few days ago, the World Bank released a report predicting that, because of the pandemic, as many as 150 million people could fall into severe poverty by next year (https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/10/07/covid-19-to-add-as-many-as-150-million-extreme-poor-by-2021). Those who are already in extreme poverty will find their situation worse. Countless millions have started to face grave food insecurity this year. Back in April, the UN warned of “famines of biblical proportion” breaking out across the world, saying that a quarter of a billion people could be driven to starvation by the end of 2020 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/21/global-hunger-could-be-next-big-impact-of-coronavirus-pandemic). Because the world heeded the warning and took extraordinary measures to prevent this, forecasts are now much more optimistic. But crisis-level hunger has increased significantly and there is no doubt that food security has an imperiled future. (https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/09/1072712).
This year’s World Food Day is thus observed at a grave time. Celebration of declining hunger is no longer possible. While social distancing measures prevented World Food Day from being commemorated in the usual manner, participants had a whole lot to talk about. One of the biggest tasks was simply sounding the alarm on the food crisis. Food-related issues such as the locust invasion are attracting too little attention in the international media. And many people may not understand the problems affecting the supply of food at its foundation. So it is important to raise awareness of how hunger and famine are among the main crises of 2020.
Yesterday’s commemorations were worldwide but were centered on the FAO’s Rome headquarters and the UN’s New York Head Quarters (covered here https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/10/1075502). People from all over the world tuned in to give their message about food and how the UN is working in this area. Topics discussed included the specific situations affecting people right now, especially regarding the coronavirus pandemic, and longstanding issues, such as the relationship between food and climate change. Every World Food Day has a theme to highlight an important area in which action is needed and this year’s theme is “Grow, nourish, sustain, together. Our actions are our future”, which emphasizes the need for the people of the world to cooperate with each other to ensure a future of adequate food for all.
This seems a rather broad and farsighted theme for current circumstances. Right now, we are in a rapidly escalating food crisis caused largely by an unusual event, the coronavirus pandemic, which calls for a theme that more reflects current pressing issues, such as something akin to 2009’s theme “Achieving food security in times of crisis”.
One of the most noteworthy instances of this World Food Day, for instance, was the video message of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in which he declared “In a world of plenty, it is a grave affront that hundreds of millions go to bed hungry each night” and called for building a sustainable future. He was referring to how enough food is regularly produced in the world to feed every person but that food fails to reach many people. But “world of plenty” better describes the world before COVID. Now, much more food is becoming unavailable to people due to nobody’s fault. All the shutdowns for protecting everyone from coronavirus is causing a collapse of food supply lines and resolving this conundrum is the need of the hour. So maybe the UN chief should keep himself more up-to-date on his appeals.
However, longstanding deficiencies in global supply chains greatly increased vulnerability to the shock of COVID-19. And that is the point we all need to be aware of. The impacts of the pandemic have not come out of the blue along with the virus but are the culmination of circumstances that have long challenged the well-being of people. Plus, what is happening now has a great bearing on the long-term future, with the chance that we can achieve a world with zero hunger soon now much more unlikely. Fixing common problems and achieving pandemic-era relief go hand in hand.
You can listen to Guterres’s full message here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IR5evGJsS4c, which succinctly describes the world’s situation.
Some of the spotlight this World Food Day has been on food wastage (https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2020/10/16/Food-waste-spotlighted-for-World-Food-Day-It-has-never-been-a-greater-time-to-invest-in-a-robust-wastage-strategy). Wasting food is responsible for great problems during normal times and becomes much more dangerous during this time of crisis. With so much hunger around, we need to efficiently use every morsel of food we have. Curbing wastage is one way to respond to our current crisis.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic jeopardizes a sustainable future and many of our troubles right now are just the beginning. In order for the world to weather the pandemic and all crises borne of it, we have to become more resilient. That is what this World Food Day is all about.