United Nations — While it is too early to assess the full impact of the global COVID-19 lockdowns, at least 83 million to 132 million more people may go hungry this year -- 690 million people were classified as hungry in 2019 -- as the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of global food systems.
This is according to the State of Food Security And Nutrition in the World 2020 report jointly launched by United Nations agencies this week.
The report also noted "the nutritional status of the most vulnerable population groups is likely to deteriorate further due to the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19".
Experts say that during the pandemic a myriad of factors, including reduced access to high-value foods, higher food prices (especially for nutritious, perishable foods) and the higher consumption of ultra-processed foods, has led to a risk of declining dietary quality globally.
"Understanding who is the most affected by the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic is essential to build momentum for action, to guide decision-making and to engage and empower the vulnerable as agents," Katarzyna Dembska, a researcher at the Barilla Centre For Food and Nutrition (BCFN), told IPS.
"This requires robust tracking and investments in monitoring systems and predictive analysis. Data has to be easy to access, interpret and used by policymakers and other relevant stakeholders, to enable evidence-based decisions."
Dembska further echoed a message from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, an alliance of philanthropic foundations working together and with others to transform global food systems, stating the importance of shifting away from a "feed the world" or "productivist" narrative, "based on assumptions that we need to 'double food production by 2050' and focused on providing food and calories."
"A new narrative needs to be adopted, aiming at nourishing a growing global population and focusing on the quality of food, so that it contributes to human and planetary health," she added.
At the launch of the report, Dr. Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the U.N. (FAO), highlighted the need for low-cost production.
"We have to produce food with low cost of raw materials, that's where we need innovation," he said. The report had noted that healthy diets are at least five times more expensive than diets that meet dietary energy needs, with the former remaining unaffordable to an estimated 3 billion people.
"We have to encourage people, especially small farmers, to produce more and better, [and] to shorten supply chains. If you can shorten the supply chain, it's better for the environment and there's also less dependence."
The report noted that the world was not on track to achieve zero hunger by 2030 and malnutrition among children remained a challenge and needed to be prioritised. The report's key messages stated that countries needed to mainstream nutrition in their agricultural policies, noting also that nutrition-sensitive social protection policies would be required to provide healthy diets to vulnerable populations.
IPS spoke with Dembska and Dr. Marta Antonelli, head of research at BCFN. Excerpts of the interview follow. Some of the answers have been paraphrased for clarity purposes.
Inter Press Service (IPS): How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected food sustainability measures around the world?
Marta Antonelli (MA): The measures to control or mitigate the pandemic have affected food supply chains, with slower harvests and disruptions (both production and processes) due to the lack of seasonal labour force, especially for high-value supply chains; higher price volatility, which may adversely impact low-income and countries dependent on food imports; potentially reduced pools of capital for smallholders which provide about 80 percent of the food supply in Asia and Africa; higher food losses due to trade disruptions, blockages to transport routes and lockdowns; risks for the life and livelihoods of all workers.
As the pandemic evolves, the impacts on food security and nutrition have also been observed. For example, reduced access to high-value foods, such as fruits and vegetables; higher food prices, especially for nutritious (perishable) foods; reduced food affordability and accessibility, with particularly adverse impacts on low-income households; higher consumption of ultra-processed foods, as access to healthy food becomes more difficult; increased household food waste due to food hoarding during lockdowns.
IPS: The report states: "the number of people affected by hunger in the world continues to increase slowly. This trend started in 2014 and extends to 2019". How is global hunger linked to food sustainability?
MA: Transforming food systems encompasses changes across all the three dimensions of sustainability: social, economic, environmental. There is evidence that the quality of diet worsens with increasing levels of food insecurity. Low-income- and lower-middle-income countries rely heavily on staples like cereals, roots, tubers and plantains, which represent the largest share of food available (over 60 percent in some cases), and often fruit and vegetables are not enough to meet the requirement of a minimum intake of 400g/day.
A sustainable food system ensures access and affordability of nutritious food at all times, thus preventing hunger, while at the same time preserving and stewarding the natural resource base.
IPS: At the State of Food Security And Nutrition in the World 2020 report launch, Henrietta Fore, executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund, said one of the reasons behind low-birth rate is "sub-optimal diets for mothers and many of the mothers are adolescents".
How is food sustainability important to the issue of maternal diets and health?
Katarzyna Dembska (KD): Women represent 43 percent of the total agricultural labour force worldwide, with shares close to 50 percent in some regions of Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. However, despite their crucial role in guaranteeing food security in their household and community, they suffer from important disadvantages and inequalities, from lack to land rights, to reduced access to credit or inputs, unpaid work, insecure employment and exclusion from decision making and political representation.
Within households, food insecurity may not be evenly distributed, with studies finding that women are more affected by food insecurity than men, mainly due to the fact that women are responsible for caregiving and food provisioning in their households, often allocating food to others before themselves.
In addressing women's inequalities, it is essential to move towards a food policy that addresses right to food issues beyond food production support, food aid and export bans prevention, that guarantees adequate nutrition, especially to the marginalised, whose main issues are access and inequality, that has broad political and social support, and is easily implemented.
IPS: How will COVID-19 affect food sustainability concerns for women and children specifically?
KD: The societal disruptions and economic shocks arising from COVID-19 control and mitigation measures have been severe, particularly for vulnerable groups.
The Global Nutrition Report states that today, 613.2 million adolescent girls and women aged 15 to 49 years suffer from anemia; 20.5 million newborns (14.6 percent) have a low birth weight; stunting still affects 149.0 million (21.9 percent) children under five years of age, and wasting affects 49.5 million (7.3 percent) children under five years of age.
All these numbers could grow rapidly due to COVID-19 restriction measures and social and economic aftermath. As of late May, 368 million school children were missing out on daily school meals on which they depend, and estimates predict the pandemic could push about 49 million people into extreme poverty in 2020, and every percentage point drop in global GDP is expected to result in an additional 0.7 million stunted children.
IPS: The report states that having enough to eat is important, but what people eat also needs to be nutritious. Addressing the issue of affordability is crucial to address hunger and malnutrition. What are currently some of the key concerns about accessibility and affordability to nutritious food?
KD: Those who are food insecure usually spend most of their income on food. The effects of the pandemic on the economy has reduced their ability to purchase food, so there is a risk in a decline in dietary quality, not only resulting from compromised employment, but also from the revocation of schemes such as school feeding programmes, and shocks on the demand and supply sides resulting in the breakdown of food markets.
MA: Affordability is a key aspect of food security and a key determinant of food access, which depends not only food cost but also on the disposable income spent on food.
Among the major impacts of COVID-19 on food systems, we should mention rising food costs, especially in urban centres that are home to over half of the world population, as rural supply was unable to reach properly urban demand.
Increased food prices have a direct impact on the quality of diets, preventing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but also dairy, meat and fish due to the failure in reaching wholesale and retail markets, with loss of income for those operating in the food sector, especially for smallholder farmers and small-scale producers, and led to disruptions in production. FAO has crucially pointed out that the cost of the diet increases incrementally as the diet quality increases, a key issue that needs to be tackled worldwide as healthy diets are not affordable for three billion people in the world.