• The coronavirus pandemic is projected to raise the number of people suffering acute hunger this year to 265 million, according to the UN World Food Programme.
  • UN Secretary-General António Guterres says the crisis is a “call to action”, and that more aid is urgently needed.

“Hanging by a thread”. That’s how the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Senior Economist, Arif Husain, described millions of people who don’t have enough food – and that was before the impact of the coronavirus.

He’s worried that COVID-19 could disrupt food supplies to such an extent that it pushes the most vulnerable “over the edge”.

So how likely are these outcomes? And what can the world do to help?

The number of people affected by acute food insecurity in 2019 is expected to double this year.
The number of people affected by acute food insecurity in 2019 is expected to double this year.
Image: WFP

Potential catastrophe

The WFP defines ‘food insecurity’ as “the lack of secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal human growth and development and an active and healthy life.”

Or as WFP Executive Director, David Beasley, vividly puts it: “821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, chronically hungry”.

But despite this they’re not his main worry here. Instead, it’s people in ‘acute food insecurity’ – where lack of food is “of a severity that threatens lives, livelihoods or both” – who could be the collateral damage of COVID-19. Beasley warns that the world is “on the brink of a hunger pandemic”.

There were 135 million people in low and middle-income countries in acute food insecurity last year. That figure could almost double to reach 265 million in 2020, according to the WFP’s recent Global Report on Food Crises (produced with 15 other humanitarian and development partners). And the coronavirus is largely to blame.

The coronavirus factor

COVID-19 “is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage”, says WFP’s Arif Husain. “Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs.

“It only takes one more shock – like COVID-19 – to push them over the edge”.

Food

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose's impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

Warning from history

The UN acknowledges that, so far, food supplies have held up relatively well during the pandemic.

However that could change. The WFP’s latest projections, contained in its Global Report on Food Crises, draw on lessons from the recent past.

In 2008, for instance, as the impacts of the global banking crisis took hold, there were food price riots and strikes over prices in more than a dozen countries as availability and supplies were hit.

Another concern is the behaviour of markets and individuals as coronavirus responses by ‘breadbasket’ nations disrupt global supply chains and cause panic buying.

“What if bulk buyers think they can’t get wheat or rice shipments in May or June? That is what could lead to a global food supply crisis,” said a grain market analyst from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

A man attempts to fend-off a swarm of desert locusts at a ranch near the town of Nanyuki in Laikipia county, Kenya, February 21, 2020. Picture taken February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner - RC219F9SLHNL
Crop pests like these locusts in Kenya are contributing to the ‘perfect storm’ of factors creating acute food insecurity.
Image: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Most at risk

So who could be most at risk from this COVID-19 fallout if the worst does come to pass?

Sadly it is those who are currently most vulnerable – those already “hanging by a thread”. The WFP report identifies the 32 countries who needed the most food aid in 2019 – they are in the spotlight now.

“The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 are most worrisome for communities in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, because the virus threatens further damage to the lives and livelihoods of people already put at risk by conflict,” says the WFP’s David Beasley.

Alongside Syria, Yemen is a particular cause for concern. The WFP describes it as already being “the world’s worst food crisis”.

Now, it says the combined effects of conflict, macroeconomic crisis, climate-related shocks and crop pests – particularly desert locusts – create the potential for a perfect storm.

Time for action

Hand-wringing is clearly not enough. UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, says the WFP report must be a “call to action”.

“We have the tools and the know-how. What we need is political will and sustained commitment by leaders and nations.” But what does that look like?

The first priority, the WFP says, is money – to build up food and cash stockpiles in the most at-risk counties.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Aid donors are being asked to fast-track $1.9 billion that has already been pledged, and an extra $350 million is needed rapidly to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to get the food where it’s needed.

Some of the world’s largest food companies are also urging governments to take action by keeping borders open and not responding to COVID-19 by locking down food supplies.

Economists and leading political figures are also contributing to the debate, urging world leaders to assist the poorest with their fights against the coronavirus, or else pay the price.