The coronavirus crisis is deepening inequalities in accessing healthy food, the UN special envoy for food systems has warned.
As governments imposed trade and travel restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19, global supply chains have been disrupted, hindering the distribution of food from farms to consumers largely concentrated in urban areas.
Meanwhile the economic slowdown has triggered a fall in demand, leaving unsellable fruits and vegetables rotting in fields and orchards and farmers without an income.
“My biggest concern is that there are a whole load of people out there that had the ability to feed themselves and now can’t,” Agnes Kalibata, of Rwanda, said. It puts the UN sustainable development goal to eradicate hunger by 2030 further out of reach.
Developing shorter supply chains where possible to get food to those who need it and reduce the sector’s environmental impact will be important, Kalibata said.
In December last year, Kalibata was appointed by UN Secretary General António Guterres to lead a Food Systems Summit in the second half of 2021.
The event, due to be attended by governments, businesses and experts, is designed to create momentum around transforming the global food system to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and ensure people have access to healthy diets while protecting the planet.
The coronavirus outbreak has brought the summit’s objectives into sharp focus, exposing the weaknesses of food production, processing and distribution as millions are now faced with starvation.
The most vulnerable people in society have been the first and hardest hit, Kalibata told Climate Home News in a video call.
“This is the group of people that is having to make choices around nutrition and how many times a day they eat. It is becoming increasingly clear that the strain on household nutrition is going to become the biggest impact of the crisis,” she said.
Before the Covid-19 outbreak, UN agencies were already forecasting acute food insecurity for 2020 driven by conflicts in Yemen and Central Africa and the Middle East, an outbreak of desert locusts in East Africa, extreme weather events in the Caribbean, adverse climate in the Sahel and West Africa and socio-political crisis and high food prices in Latin America.
Last month, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated the pandemic had doubled the number of people that could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 to 265 million people.
David Beasley, executive director of the WFP, said millions of people faced being pushed to the brink of starvation, warning of a “hunger pandemic”.
“If we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months,” he said.
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“The knee jerk reaction is to be inward looking, to secure our borders and our food,” Kalibata said.
According to Unctad, the UN body dealing with trade, global trade is projected to fall by a record 27% in the second quarter of the year. And 21 countries have responded to the pandemic with export restrictions, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Kalibata warned that governments turning their backs on global trade and imposing export restrictions risked increasing food prices, fearing a repeat of the 2007/8 food price spike.
“I don’t think global trade is a weakness,” she said, pointing out that many countries don’t have the capacity to produce enough nutritious food to feed their population.
But the development of shorter supply chains that can channel perishable and nutritious food quicker and with less environmental impact, will be critical, she added.
From farm to fork, the food supply chain accounts for 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN. About a third of all food produced goes to waste.
While local food systems are not going to replace the global food trade, the creation of new intra-regional markets could plug the demand gap during the pandemic and global recession that follows.
Across Africa, south east Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean region, current levels of regional trade are very low, Jamie Morrison, director of the Food Systems Programme at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told CHN.
Many African countries are reliant on export commodities such as coffee, tea and tropical fruits, for example. Increasing the consumption of these commodities in Africa would support local economies while building resilience in the food system.
“The development of regional markets could also have a positive impact on food loss from supply chains, which could be less susceptible to perishability issues,” Morrison said. Shorter supply chains could also limit the need for energy-intensive refrigeration, which is expected to rise as the planet heats up.
The pandemic has also put the link between nutrition, health and development into sharp relief.
While the number of hungry people is on the rise, reaching 820 million over the past three years, about two billion people are overweight or obese and 30% of all deaths are linked to nutrition-related diseases, said Kalibata.
The 2020 Global Nutrition Report published this week highlighted the link between inequities in the food system and health inequalities.
While undernourished people have a weaker immune system and can be at greater risks of the virus, people with obesity and diabetes have been found to be more likely to die from Covid-19.
“There is a real risk that, as nations strive to control the virus, the gains they have made in reducing hunger and malnutrition will be lost,” the report warned.
It found that shorter supply chains for fresh food delivery to the most nutritionally disadvantaged could help address nutrition imbalance.
As governments work out recovery packages to the pandemic’s economic impact, the Food and Land Use Coalition called for investment into diversifying food supply chains and developing regional food systems to build resilience.
For the next 18 months, UN special envoy Kalibata will be working to create consensus for what a future sustainable food system should look like. Supply chains, nutrition, education, waste and climate change are all issues to be addressed by the summit.
“It will require countries to commit to do things differently. We need to be concerned about having a healthy planet and healthy people living on this planet – addressing that is a huge undertaking,” she said.