Pandemic Exposes Long-Standing Problems in the Global Food System

by Thoric Cederstrom, Ph.D., Senior International Development Specialist

June 7, 2020

In a very short time, the response to the COVID-19 virus pandemic has exposed many of the long-standing structural weaknesses and inequalities of the global food system.  After years of steady progress in reducing the total number of chronically underfed people, the tide has turned backward, due to civil wars, crop failure, climate change, and now most recently—COVID-19.  The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that more than a quarter of a billion people face starvation this year due to the multiple impacts of COVID-19.

COVID-19 is accelerating global hunger in two key ways:  government-imposed lock-downs adversely affect the poor and unemployed families who are running out of money to buy food, even where it is still available. Ironically, due to the weakened demand stemming from a lack of cash, the FAO-monitored food price index has fallen to a 17-month low.  Also, many of these vulnerable families depend on school feeding programs to ensure that their children have access to nutritious food at least once a day. The closure of schools is depriving 370 million children of this critical source of nourishment.

Global food trade has also been disrupted. In Africa, many borders have been closed, consequently transporters cannot move food, resulting in significant food spoilage.  These localized disruptions have resulted in hoarding and have pushed up prices of staples such as rice.  In Senegal, trade restrictions and curfews have adversely affected the food economy, especially the seafood sector upon which the poor depend for livelihoods and sustenance.  Exacerbating the situation, some major grain producing countries exporters are contemplating controls on food exports. Such trade restrictions make a bad situation worse.  Food deficit countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which are suffering from rises in unemployment coupled with drastic reductions in tax and export revenues, now must find ways to feed millions.  International cooperation is desperately needed to assist with food surpluses from other parts of the global community.

While we must mobilize quickly and effectively to deal with the immediate adverse consequences of the pandemic on global hunger, at the same time we also must look to the future and think about how we can address our chronic food problems to be more resilient to future shocks such as drought, flood or plague.  To achieve this, we must invest in agricultural research—better yields, more drought-resistant crops, early warning systems, and sustainable farming.  We must assist small farmers to earn a decent income.  One way to do that is by strengthening local food systems by improving transport, refrigeration and food processing.  Finally, we must improve access to information and finance, so farmers can better navigate future shocks and more reliably produce the food we need.

The global community is more affluent now than ever before.  Our farmers have never produced so much food.  However, food like wealth is unevenly distributed – with devastating and preventable consequences.  In a resource-abundant world, hunger should now be a relic of the past.  Yet it isn’t.

To build a more sustainable and equitable global food system that provides affordable, nutritious and safe food for all, we need strong collaboration between governments, the private sector, academic institutions and intergovernmental bodies.  Together we can help not only those left hungry today and tomorrow by COVID-19, but those who are chronically vulnerable to hunger due to deficits in the global food system.  Now is the time to act to make food insecurity a distant memory.



Dr. Thoric CederstromAbout the Author: Dr. Thoric Cederström is the Director for Research and Learning for Food Enterprise Solutions which is actively implementing a five-year USAID Feed the Future initiative called Business Drivers for Food Safety.  Previous experience includes: Senior Advisor for Partnerships in Nutrition, World Food Program; Senior Manager for Agriculture in Nutrition, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN); various positions with Save the Children, Counterpart International, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the University of Arizona.




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