Pandemic Exposes Long-Standing Problems in the Global Food System

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.




On Resilience: Hunger, Food and Disease Outbreaks

March 15, 2020

The current coronavirus (COVID-19) global outbreak – pandemic – may very well have implications for hunger and food security. This would be particularly so in poorer, developing countries where large urban populations may depend on fragile supply chains for food.

We know that shocks – including wars – can impair movement of basic life-sustaining foodstuffs, as in Yemen today. We also know that food is an intrinsic part of how we currently address some diseases. Many humanitarian agencies have published at length about the value of ensuring food and nutrition for African families affected by HIV/AIDS.

Food aid has been important for helping families or breadwinners to self-quarantine after being identified as having been in contact with a carrier of a disease in other instances. For example, in West Africa in 2014/2015, and in Central Africa today, nonprofits and the World Food Programme have been providing food or food-purchasing vouchers to families under watch for suspected new cases of Ebola.

Food aid also helps promote compliance for health care. Often food aid is helpful to ensure prenatal screenings in programs in refugee camps for pregnant and lactating women. As another example, in many countries today, low-income persons with Tuberculosis (TB) find it hard to take the complex regimen of drugs necessary each morning without food also provided, so aid agencies provide food assistance alongside the medical assistance to ensure compliance.

Hunger may also appear as a secondary crisis following the shocks of a larger pandemic. Often in pandemics, ports shut down, trade freezes up, and food does not transport as it had. Any time a city or region is quarantined, it automatically poses constraints to food trade.

Indeed, the food aspects of a pandemic could prove to be the most controversial, posing major policy dilemmas with highly variable outcomes. Many experts believe that the most variable or preventable forms of death due to a pandemic are not from the immediate medical impact, but from the food and social effects. A global public goods perspective of a pandemic suggests that whereas health programs are a win-win for everyone, other goods, such as food, energy, or oil, are competed over and may become scarce.

As of today, the World Health Organization has defined the current COVID-19 spread as a pandemic. From the past, we understand that many pandemics tend to flow as waves. The 1918 flu influenza killed 100 million people, by some estimates, and circled world several times over the span of a year. Health science was so imperfect in that time, and World War I was such a distraction, that the existence of a pandemic killing people from India to Africa to Illinois was not immediately understood. In today’s world, the extent of an outbreak is more immediately tracked and mapped, with the consequence that travel and markets freeze up.

To understand the counter-intuitive ways that markets may respond to fears, consider the large number of people who died in India due to famine during World War II. In 1941-42, a severe famine killed up to two million people in the Bengal region of India. In studying this famine, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen recognized that it occurred despite a better-than-average local food harvest. Food was sequestered and kept out of retail networks due to an overall atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety about future events, i.e. an invasion by the Japanese army (which never occurred). This led to a lack of food availability in markets for most of the consumers. The lesson is that events in one domain (war, disease) can lead to market disruptions that can worsen poverty and hunger, and in some pockets of the world, starvation.

The diagram below depicts one scenario of how a disease may pass through a country during a pandemic, similar to the 1918 case. The inner full lines depict the period when it is spreading person-to-person in a particular country – a few months – during a year. The broken line above it depicts the shock wave that is longer as markets tighten and access to food becomes limited. This diagram comes from a USG-funded interagency working group of UN agencies and NGOs in the 2000s, looking at scenarios of how a pandemic might unfold:

Diagram courtesy of Steve Hansch


That same study found that:

“The increase in food prices for some countries – those that are not food self-sufficient but depend on grain imports – will be sharper and higher than that seen in 1974 or in 2008, when food price increases made international headlines as a pervasive crisis.  The tightness in food markets in 1974 and 2008 provide some lessons about the dynamics of global food markets, though a pandemic’s effects on food trade could be far more lethal.   Just as occurred in 2008, food trade will become restricted and food will be rationed and hoarded, with the result that food prices will increase for most locations where populations aggregate (cities, towns), though food prices will decrease in rural agricultural areas.  Even if the virus spreads from foci to foci, along lines of airplane travel, or migration, the wave of food panic may be more diffuse and global.”

The study also cautioned that in many locations, as commercial food pipelines break down, stores that sell food (particularly in urban areas) will likely be in a hurry to disburse fresh (perishable) foods to friends and family before the markets shut down to avoid ransacking. If the store owners trust rumors that food transport will be interrupted and their inventories not replenished, they may see an incentive to protect the store itself by closing it down, boarding it up and posting “no more food” signs, rather than face break-ins, threats, or government requisition.

For these and other reinforcing dynamic reasons, food prices may inflate in urban areas many times above normal levels over the first few weeks of a pandemic. For poor families who are already spending their limited income largely on food, increased prices leads to reduced consumption. Most famines in modern history have shown that increased food prices lead to increased hunger and malnutrition-related death.

Experts recommend that key national-level goals are to reduce national panic and distress migration (for instance away from urban areas to rural areas). Therefore, food programs can support leaders by helping them to maintain credibility when communicating to the public that people need not panic about food shortages; therefore, governments need to have some credible back-up reserves of food with which to promise to provide targeted food for the malnourished. Many governments already dabble in maintaining emergency reserves of food. So, when an outbreak—such as COVID-19—begins to spread on the health side, governments can and should begin to quietly store and then allocate food resources to work with civil society agencies, such as the Red Cross, to quickly pre-purchase and move food storage to decentralized locations, to reach the most vulnerable people.

About the Author: Steve Hansch is a WHES Board Member with long-standing association with Hunger Notes.

The Impact of Unequal Wealth Distribution on Poverty Worldwide

September 29, 2019

While it is often said that more people were pulled out of poverty over the last century than in the whole history of mankind, there is still much work to do. Some numbers about Africa’s economy can seem encouraging at the surface level, but the harsh reality is that Africa still has some of the most unequal societies in the world. It is a continent still affected by political conflicts and corrupt governments. Let’s take a look at some of the effects of unequal wealth distribution worldwide, and what the prospects look like for the future.

Poverty in Africa is Decreasing, But Not Fast Enough

While some countries have had a renaissance, such as Rwanda or the Côte d’Ivoire, poverty on the continent remains very real, and out of the world’s poorest countries, 24 out of the 30 were located in sub-Saharan Africa.

One obstruction seems to be the huge gap between the immense wealth of a small group of persons and the rest of the population. Then there’s the specter of military conflict and rebel activity, often fueled by shadowy groups and old colonial powers.

Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of the world’s cobalt is produced, have been torn apart by conflict for decades. While the high demand for cobalt should have been a windfall for the impoverished country, a handful of warlords in highly disputed regions are the only ones benefiting from it, not to mention that political tensions are never good for foreign investment.

Africa is Not the Only Continent to Suffer from Poverty

South America, Central Asia, and various parts of Eastern Europe are also suffering from extreme poverty and inequality. As we can see on this map, the average income in countries like Afghanistan is below the $600 mark. This can be attributed to decades of conflict, the lack of infrastructure, and a lack of natural resources. The yearly income in Ukraine is also shockingly low at about $2,660, though the gap between the highest and lowest annual incomes is not as drastic there as it might be in other countries—a vestige of the old communist era.

What Are the Solutions?

The solution to the problem should eventually come from different parties. A long-term solution to poverty would be for foreign aid to focus on helping countries become more self-sufficient, through self-determination and development opportunities.

Infrastructure will also have to be improved, starting with roads and communications. Wireless has been a huge boon to Africa, and more people than ever have had the chance to get connected. This is in large part what has contributed to the sudden growth. Finally, leadership in these countries will have to be either pushed or forced to redistribute wealth and uphold the rule of law, either through sanctions or direct action. However, this approach could also lead to more inequality, as governments will often end up funding rebels who will then become the new financially elite, perpetuating the same cycle over and over again. One example would be Ortega in El Salvador.

The problem of poverty is a complex one. Aid efforts that give the impoverished increased access to education, financial mobility, more stable governance and better infrastructure should be given more attention. Much work still needs to be done, but there is still hope.


About the Author: William is a climate/weather enthusiast who takes a great interest in topics related to both climate change and weather. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of Dallas. He is currently retired and lives with his family in Dallas, TX.

*This is an independent article and does not reflect the views of WHES.

The Brand Agency & Foodbank Fight Hunger This Christmas With Empty Packet Of Cereal

In light of the federal government’s recent threat to reduce funding for food relief organisation Foodbank, The Brand Agency has launched an innovative new product to go on Western Australian supermarket shelves and raise funds over the Christmas period.

How Blockchain Can Be Used to Address Food Security in India

Every night, 200 million people in India go to sleep with hungry stomachs. Ranked 105th on the 2018 hunger index, India is home to the largest undernourished population in the world. These grim statistics are counter intuitive in light of India’s significant gains in agriculture production, which have advanced the country from famines to food surplus, the paradox being hungry people and food surplus in the same place.

Solving Dietary Issues Through Public Private Partnerships: An Example from the Field

October 19, 2018

Every October, World Food Day is celebrated around the globe. Unfortunately, hunger is increasing, not decreasing. After a period of decline, world hunger is on the rise again. Today, over 820 million people are suffering chronic undernourishment [1]. While the reasons for the rise in hunger are complex, the role of the private sector, while acknowledged to be a key component in solving hunger-related issues, continues to be debated. This piece will present one of many personal experiences with the role of public private partnerships in addressing hunger.

Since 1979, I have been involved with the implementation of multimillion-dollar agriculture field programs around the world. They have had, as their aim, to improve food security either indirectly through income generation through agro-related activities and/or directly with farming households through improving productivity and dietary diversity for their own consumption. Private sector involvement has always been integral part of these programs. Private sector engagement in food security is nothing new. It has been around since the domestication of agricultural crops and livestock. Today’s global food supply chains impact local food systems everywhere, both positively and negatively.

In recent years the international development community of practice has focused in on the role of the private sector in improving dietary quality, especially in vulnerable populations. Data from food insecure countries show diet-related micronutrient malnutrition, especially vitamin A and iron, to be serious issues impacting maternal and child health. Many food insecure countries have limited financial and human resources to combat micronutrient malnutrition, so using their limited assets strategically is a high priority. Countries grapple with a key question around private sector engagement: How can government serve as a big picture “market enabler,” and stop taking on actions that the private sector already does?

I recently facilitated a discussion group on this very topic as part of a long-term advisory assignment in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country was in the process of developing a multi-year plan for agriculture. Our discussion group consisted of private sector actors from throughout the agriculture supply chain (small growers, input suppliers, buyers, and processors), as well as NGOs and public sector actors from the ministry of agriculture, which included a policy maker and key personnel in charge of outreach. One of the big changes the government was committed to was transitioning from their role as “market maker” to “market enabler.” This included a desire to concentrate more on how to solve dietary issues, especially micronutrient malnutrition, through the marketplace as an enabler.

The group selected iron-fortified beans as a case study to illustrate how the enabler process could be achieved. First, we reviewed recent data that indicated women in the country who consumed iron-fortified beans significantly improved iron levels in 128 days [2]. Next, the group agreed that the type of bean tested in the consumption trial is consumed widely and is easily grown in traditional mixed cropping systems. Next, we asked the food processor about iron-fortified beans who stated his company was in the final stages of setting up a processing line for canned beans using locally grown beans. The processor could see the competitive advantage of marketing highly nutritious beans in a country where diet-related iron deficiency was so prevalent; as long as using iron-fortified beans would not cost more than conventional beans, he would consider buying them.

At that point the group turned to the public sector participants from the ministry of agriculture. The outreach/extension director stated that if the buyer was committed to buying iron-fortified beans, and since beans are traditionally grown, the extension team could come up with an outreach plan to provide skills to improve productivity throughout the supply chain to produce the quantity and quality required. NGOs attending the discussion indicated that they would support demand creation for iron-rich beans through their behavioral change communications work. Finally, the policy maker spoke. He now understood how an identified dietary gap could be used to drive an agricultural supply chain. He understood the role of the ministry as a market enabler for the private sector in creating demand for nutrient-dense foods that should have a positive impact on micronutrient malnutrition.

This example highlights how nutrition-driven value chains present opportunities in which key actors identify a common interest and then proceed to build a public–private partnership to resolve the issue.

[1] FAO 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report.

[2] The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 146, Issue 8, 1 August 2016.

Share Your Thoughts

What has been your experience with the role of public-private partnerships in addressing hunger-related issues? What worked? What didn’t? If you’d like to respond with an article or opinion, you can find us on Twitter @HungerNotes, or on Facebook at World Hunger Education Service – Hunger Notes.

About the Author

Since 1979, Paul Sommers has been an active proponent for the integration of agriculture and nutrition. He holds academic degrees in both agriculture and nutritional sciences, and has taught both subjects as a faculty member in the California State University system. He has promoted the market-driven link through a variety of channels including USAID, Peace Corps, NGOs, the United Nations, and the World Bank. His field activities have included on the ground technical assistance in over 55 countries, management of long-term food security projects, capacity building through community-based workshops and the publication of several field training manuals, and “how to” books on the food production nutrition linkage for community outreach staff. The author’s blog is:

*This is an independent article and does not necessarily reflect the views of WHES.