The international community must act in tandem to prevent a major food shortage that will disproportionately hurt developing countries.

As humanity copes with the global Covid-19 pandemic, there are warnings from the United Nations about growing threats to food security.

Throughout history there have been many hunger crises and they were often outcomes of regional developments such as political unrest or extreme weather and natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, droughts, etc.). The current threat to food security is unique because it targets all regions of the world and is driven by numerous variables connected to Covid-19’s impact on the global economic system.

Keeping people fed and alive amid this pandemic will be much harder with more shocks to the international economy and food systems that rely on supply chains remaining in operation. 

A concern expressed by officials at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) is that fears of food becoming unavailable in certain areas can lead to governments restricting their countries’ exports, which can severely disrupt food supply chains all over the world in a highly globalised system.

“With international trade so fundamental to prosperity, health and environmental sustainability, we must clearly identify disease carriers and intervene at critical control points in order to keep trade flowing without compromising safety,” wroteJohn R. Clifford, the former Chief Veterinary Officer of the United States. “Trade halts, quarantines and, even more challenging, the need to depopulate livestock farms, come at a high price for our food industry.”

Volatility in food prices demonstrates the fragility of such supply chains and the extent to which countries that depend on imports to meet their national food requirements are vulnerable to Covid-19’s impact on food security. Due to this disease, the number of people lacking access to sufficient food could surpass 250 million—roughly double what it is now—by the end of 2020. 

Without doubt, the countries already coping with food crises, or struggling to barely avoid them, will suffer the most. According to the Global Network Against Food Crises, last year there were approximately 135 million people who experienced “acute food insecurity, which required urgent food, nutrition, and livelihoods assistance for survival.” Of these acutely food insecure people, 65 percent live in ten countries: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

As the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Johan Swinnen explained to the New York Times, “logistical problems in planting, harvesting and transporting food will leave poor countries exposed in the coming months, especially those reliant on imports.” 

Agriculture ministers representing the G20 recently agreed that when it comes to global food supply chains that many humans rely on, “emergency measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic must be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary.”

The closure of schools amid lockdowns is also a part of this grander problem. Of the 1.6 billion young people who are currently not in school due to coronavirus, over a third of one billion are not receiving nutritious meals which are crucial to their immune systems.

Effects of armed conflicts

Particularly vulnerable are war-ravaged countries already suffering from food crises and malnutrition. Therefore, pausing armed conflicts is imperative. The United Nations has called on all actors involved in wars to freeze their military operations in order to help the world deal with Covid-19. Yet fighting persists in many hotspots.

Libya’s civil war between warlord Khalifa Haftar’s side and the UN-recognised government in Tripoli rages on as Haftar unilaterally declared the 'unity deal' a thing of the past. In Somalia, the US military’s airstrikes have not halted. The multisided Syrian conflict continues, most recently with violence between various groups in the northern part of the country. 

The failure to bring peace to these conflict-zones will prevent international organisations from safely accessing the most vulnerable people who are often trapped in parts of these war-torn countries.

Averting famine

Thus far, the disruptions which Covid-19 has caused to the global economic system has not resulted in any widespread starvations or famines. But the risk of the coronavirus pandemic fueling a major food crisis catastrophe will increase if the international community fails to take preparatory measures that secure vulnerable populations’ access to sufficient levels of food in order to survive.

As the world witnessed in 2007/2008, food security issues can destabilise fragile states and exacerbate political tensions. The possibility of similar forms of unrest erupting today amid the Covid-19 crisis is real. It would behoove all governments to take this threat seriously and take proactive (not reactive) steps. 

While the continent most vulnerable to the famine threat is Africa, all nations on this planet have vested interests in preventing the coronavirus pandemic from triggering widespread hunger in any region. Food crises that send certain countries into chaos will almost inevitably lead to instability spilling across borders, underscoring how much is at stake from a global security perspective.

This pandemic has caused the greatest disruption to the global food system since World War II. At this point, international solidarity is crucial while continued bickering between geopolitical rivals will do nothing to counter the threats that Covid-19 poses to food security. 

To prevent a catastrophic food crises, particularly in poor and war-ridden areas of the world, all countries must coordinate to ensure that certain trade flows continue. Without properly managing Covid-19’s impact on supply chains, worldwide food shortages could subject tens of millions of cash-strapped people to famine this year.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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