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Covid pandemic is pushing world to brink of global food emergency: UN Secretary General

T V Jayan New Delhi | Updated on June 10, 2020 Published on June 10, 2020

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres   -  Bloomberg

The Covid-19 pandemic could lead to a global food emergency unless immediate action is not taken as millions of people were already suffering from hunger and malnutrition even before the virus hit, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres.

“The Covid-19 pandemic poses a threat to food security and nutrition – especially to the world’s most vulnerable communities. The mitigation measures and the emerging global recession could disrupt the functioning of food systems with potentially dire consequences. Without immediate action, we risk spiralling into a global food emergency,” Guterres said on Tuesday night.

Such disruption to food systems can result in consequences for health and nutrition of a severity and scale unseen for more than half a century, he said a policy brief on Covid-19 impacts on food security. The coronavirus is expected to slash the global economic output by $8.5 trillion over the next two years.

Food security

The UN Secretary General called for a three-pronged action plan to improve food security of vulnerable populations. Firstly, he said, there is need to focus attention where the risk is most acute. There is a need to strengthen social protection system so that poor and vulnerable have access to food and enhanced nutrition. Thirdly, it’s time to invest in the future and transform food systems to build more inclusive sustainable world.

For now, global markets in staple grains remain robust and stocks of most staple foods are adequate. Yet the vast majority of the world’s population rely on local markets for their sustenance, which are often highly susceptible to disruption. High levels of unemployment, loss of income, and rising food costs are also making access to food difficult for many.

Measures to control Covid-19 outbreaks are already affecting global food supply chains. Border restrictions and lockdowns are, for example, slowing harvests in some parts of the world, leaving millions of seasonal workers without livelihoods, while also constrain transport of food to markets, he said.

Prior to the onset of this pandemic, more than 820 million people were already identified as chronically food insecure. The latest data shows that the food security of 135 million people was categorised as crisis level or worse. That number could nearly double before the end of the year due to the impacts of Covid-19, the Secretary General said.

Near real-time household food security monitoring and model-based estimates suggest that deteriorating employment conditions and other factors may have pushed as many as 45 million people into acute food insecurity since February 2020, the majority of whom (33 million) reside in South and Southeast Asia, and most of the remainder in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The number of children under five years of age who are too short for their age, or stunted, now stands at 144 million, or more than one in five children worldwide. Currently 47 million children under five years of age fall within the wasting category, seriously underweight for their age, according to the UN chief.

The world has been improving its record on stunting and wasting over the years. But these gains from the recent past can be easily reversed, Guterres observed. Stunting and wasting in early childhood both have life-long effects; children who suffer them cannot achieve their full physical or mental potential. Wasting increases the probability that children become poor and suffer ill-health throughout their lives, and that they and their children after them will die early.

Quoting studies, he said the number of people who could be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020 may reach as high as about 49 million people, with around half of this increase occurring in Sub-Saharan African countries.

“Were this to happen, the number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will expand rapidly in as little as three months. An additional 130 million people may join the ranks of people living in extreme poverty by 2030,” Guterres said.

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Published on June 10, 2020
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