Food Security: UN Warns People Are Vulnerable to Shortages as the COVID-19 Pandemic Continues

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Since the COVID-19 panic began, I’ve worried about food secuirty.

Worldwide, and more personally, for friends and family.I’ve sent Mom and one sister plants for kitchen gardens, as I posted here, Tend Your Own Garden: Personal Food Security During the Age of COVID-19. The comments on that post showed many of our readers share my concerns, even before food shortages started to crop up at U.S. grocery stores.

Places that have long ceased to worry about ample stable food supplies have seen shortages – of meat, as processing plants have shut temporarily when their staffs sickened, and staples such as flour and yeast have disappeared from store sheves as locked-down people rediscovered the joys of home baking. Resort to food banks has increased as pepole have lost their ability to purchase their own food as their jobs and salaries have vanished.

So far, however, governments in places that have suffered past famines have this time managed to keep food supplies available and affordable – such as in Bengal, which endured a terrible human-created famine during the second World War. Millions of people died – far more than from the terrible siege of Leningrad.

In the case of Bengal, it was the Raj that caused the suffering, shipping locally grown grain to storehouses in other parts of the British Empire and giving the lie to the racist notion that the Raj could best manage supplying and distributing food to Bengalis, rather than letting them govern themselves.

Well, it didn’t.

I’ve touched on this story before, relying on the words of Shashi Tharoor, in Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread: Coronavirus and Food Security:

One reason many Indians have so little time for Churchill hagiography is his behavior during the 1943 Bengal famine, when more than 3 million people died. If you don’t know this stragic tory, please look at this piece by Indian author and Congress politician Shashi Tharoor, In Winston Churchill, Hollywood rewards a mass murderer (just one of many Tharoor has written about this subject).

For those readers who wish to delve further into the history of the Bengal famine and Churchill’s complicity, please see this Guardian account, which summarizes recent scholarship on the issue, Churchill’s policy, Churchill’s policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study.

Churchill’s statue is one of many the UK government has had to barricade to protect them from Black Lives Matter protesters, according to the Guardian in Campaigners fear far-right ‘defence’ of statues such as Churchill’s.

This is hard to understand for Western elites who recently once again awarded an Oscar to an actor who portrayed what Churchill did in winning the second World War. And UK Prime Minister penned a biography lauding the man.

UN Warning

So far, the world has dodged warned-of food export bans, as well as managed to solve labor problems, such as covering for or replacing sick meatpackers, and alleviating a shortage of seasonal workers to either plant or seure the harvest, as I  discussed in Food Security: Prince Charles Calls for Furloughed Workers to Pick Berries; My Thoughts as a Former Tomato Picker.

The UN report indicates overall world food supplies, including crucial grains, are currently in good shape. What it warns of now is the impact the world recession caused by COVID-19 will have on the ability of people, especially the poor, to afford adequate food supplies, according to the Guardian, World faces worst food crisis for at least 50 years, UN warns:

The world stands on the brink of a food crisis worse than any seen for at least 50 years, the UN has warned as it urged governments to act swiftly to avoid disaster.

Better social protections for poor people are urgently needed as the looming recession following the coronavirus pandemic may put basic nutrition beyond their reach, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said on Tuesday.

“Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults,” he said. “We need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic.”

Although harvests of staple crops are holding up, and the export bans and protectionism that experts feared have so far been largely avoided, the worst of the impacts of the pandemic and ensuing recession are yet to be felt. Guterres warned: “Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruption in the food supply chain.”

Food and nutrition is already a paramount concern for the world’s poorest, and the problem of hunger is very far from being solved. Which is particulary serious for children, the growth of one in five of whom is stunted before they reach the age of five. That number will only increase if the impact of the recession on food supplies is not addressed.

Gutteres outlined a three-part plan to do so in a press release, “We need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic”  in which he launched a Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition:

First, we must mobilize to save lives and livelihoods, focusing attention where the risk is most acute.

That means designating food and nutrition services as essential, while implementing appropriate protections for food workers.

It means preserving critical humanitarian food, livelihood and nutrition assistance to vulnerable groups.

And it means positioning food in food-crisis countries to reinforce and scale up social protection systems.

Countries need to scale up support for food processing, transport and local food markets, and they must keep trade corridors open to ensure the continuous functioning of food systems.

And they must ensure that relief and stimulus packages reach the most vulnerable, including meeting the liquidity needs of small-scale food producers and rural businesses.

Second, we must strengthen social protection systems for nutrition.

Countries need to safeguard access to safe, nutritious foods, particularly for young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, older people and other at-risk groups.

And they need to adapt and expand social protection schemes to benefit nutritionally at-risk groups.

This includes supporting children who no longer have access to school meals.

Third, we must invest in the future.

We have an opportunity to build a more inclusive and sustainable world.

Let us build food systems that better address the needs of food producers and workers.

Let us provide more inclusive access to healthy and nutritious food so we can eradicate hunger.

And let us rebalance the relationship between food systems and the natural environment by transforming them to work better with nature and for the climate.

Need for National Action

UN attention to this issue is admirable. But given the lack of effective international efforts at diplomacy – including the complete breakdown of any serious multilateral effort to address the COVID-19 pandemic –  I hope countries with large and vulnerable populaions, such as India, can continue to gurantee food secuity for their populations. The Modi government has largely failed to meet the needs of its migrant workers, as I first wrote in April, shortly after the county instituted its national lockdown, Saving Citizens, Killing the Poor: India and COVID-19. Now that it has largely lifted restrctions, largely because it decided it could no longer bear the economic costs of continued lockdown, it has nonetheless  lost control of the pandemic, in states such as Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located and the National Capital Region, where sits Delhi, a city on on track to register 550,000 cases by the end of July. according to the Business Standard, Delhi govt’s alarm bell: 550,000 Covid cases by July-end, says Deputy CM.

Whether India can continue to meet basic food security needs for its citizens as the COVID-19 pandemic proceeds is far from clear.

And I suspect that assesssment might apply to many other parts of the world as well, especially for the poorest, most vulnerable citizens.



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  1. rd

    In Central New York, most of the Covid-19 cases were nursing homes and a single greenhouse farm due to migrant worker housing and busing:

    Also, while Food Bank lines are very long, the Trump Administration and Congress have been cutting SNAP food stamp programs, so people can’t buy food in the stores through normal supply changes.The Food Bank supply chains are also disrupted because they don’t get leftovers from institutions and restaurants anymore.

    Our stores are largely back to normal now after being ravaged by scavenging hordes in March and April.Oddly enough, the primary thing we don’t find anymore is 2 lb bricks of Wegmans brand NYS cheddar cheese. Given the milk glut, the NY dairy farms are largely within 150 miles of our store, and Wegmans plants are in the region, I would have assumed we would have a glut of these bricks. Not quite sure what modifications have been made to this part of the supply chain.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I think that if there is one good outcome of the pandemic, it is that it has made everyone more aware that food isn’t something that magically appears in supermarkets. I’m surprised the number of people I know who are talking about storing a supply of food and growing more in their gardens, and supporting local growers. Whether this change will be long term or not, is I think anyones guess.

    The more difficult question is how the poor, whether in ‘developed’ countries or in poorer countries will come through this. I know a few Filipino people here, and they tell me that the situation for many of their family and friends is pretty dire – the lockdown there made getting food even harder for the urban poor, although the rural poor at least tend to have local sources to fall back on.

    1. Ren

      It’s worth localising as much as it’s feasible and economically viable as well as good foreign policy considering China can’t be trusted to use it authoritarianism for good but instead ban video games.

  3. Wukchumni

    The situation for the homeless must be pretty dire. Scant handouts any more, very little in the way of dumpster diving opportunities, and competition for withdrawals from food banks vis a vis slumming middle classers.

  4. Ken

    I’m sure the Chinese government is already thinking of how to take advantage of this situation by putting more countries in debt. Time to pushback against their crap.

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