WFP chief warns of 'hunger pandemic' as COVID-19 threatens food security

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David Beasley, executive director at the World Food Programme. Photo by: REUTERS / Denis Balibouse

WASHINGTON — An already bleak global food security picture will be compounded as the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic destroy livelihoods, disrupt supply chains, strain national budgets, and restrict trade, the Global Network Against Food Crises has warned.

The concerns were raised Tuesday as the group released its annual “Global Report on Food Crises,” which calculated that 135 million people in 55 countries and territories were suffering from acute food insecurity. That number could double as another 130 million are impacted by the pandemic, World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley told the U.N. Security Council.

“Before the coronavirus even became an issue, I was saying that 2020 would be the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for a variety of reasons,” Beasley said Tuesday. “At the same time while we’re dealing with [the] COVID-19 pandemic, we’re also on the brink of a hunger pandemic.”

Without taking into account the impact of the new virus, 2020 was already expected to be the worst year for food crises since 2017, when the Global Network Against Food Crises conducted its first analysis. The alliance of humanitarian and development organizations — founded in 2016 by WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the European Commission for International Cooperation and Development — promotes a data-driven approach to coordination and implementation to prevent food crises.

The 135 million people already experiencing acute food insecurity have no ability to cope with the additional shock of the pandemic, the report found. With 15.9 million people in food crises last year, Yemen was projected to remain the world’s worst food crisis in 2020. Conflict also drives food insecurity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan, which have the second- and third-highest numbers of people in food crises, respectively.

Conflict is the primary driver of acute hunger for 77 million people globally, while climate change accounts for 34 million and economic crises account for 24 million. The report found that these numbers are expected to grow due to COVID-19, as livelihoods and the food system are disrupted.

“At the same time while we’re dealing with [the] COVID-19 pandemic, we’re also on the brink of a hunger pandemic.”

— David Beasley, executive director, World Food Programme

“Most countries referenced in the Global Report lack the means to provide large-scale life-saving humanitarian activities in response to the pandemic while simultaneously acting to protect and support their citizens’ ability to maintain their livelihoods and earn an income,” the Global Network Against Food Crises said in a release.

In Africa, protracted conflict, a desert locust outbreak, poor rainfall, and political and economic instability could all contribute to rising food insecurity. In Asia and the Middle East, violent conflict and currency depreciation will be drivers, while socioeconomic crises and weather extremes will contribute in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The breadth of the pandemic, affecting even the richest nations, could also strain the humanitarian system in its response efforts for vulnerable populations, with member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development experiencing adverse economic impact from COVID-19. This could contribute to the challenges already posed to meeting Sustainable Development Goal 2 — on ending hunger — by 2030.

“At times like these, the poorest and the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest,” said FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu in a video message. “Together with all partners, FAO is working to maintain humanitarian operations, prevent the collapse of food systems, [and] build resilience.”

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About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.