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Global food security in times of COVID-19

24 Feb 2021

After decades of progress, hunger has been on the rise in recent years. Amidst a growing number of conflicts, accelerating climate change and economic slowdowns the number of chronically undernourished in the world climbed to almost 690 million in 2019, 60 million more than five years earlier. 135 million people faced acute hunger by the end of 2019 – compared to 80 million in 2015.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this already alarming situation. It has thrown the global economy in turmoil, the likes of which have not been seen since the Second World War. Poorer economies have been particularly affected as they frequently rely on a mix of commodity exports, tourism and remittances – all of which have taken a critical hit. The resulting income loss in these countries risks leaving millions of people without the economic means to buy food. The number of acutely hungry might have reached 270 million as a result of the pandemic while chronic hunger is estimated to have increased by up to 132 million.

To make matters worse, the crisis hit at a time when external debt of low- and middle-income countries had surpassed a record USD 8 trillion; and almost half of low-income countries were already in debt distress or at high risk of it. This not only makes it difficult for them to safeguard lives and livelihoods today, but also to make the necessary investments to set their economies on a prosperous path for tomorrow.

Insufficient access to food will likely remain an important factor that could further undermine food security in the future. 20 million young people will enter Sub-Saharan Africa’s workforce every year for the next two decades, while the region only created about 9 million jobs annually since 2000, during a period of relatively robust economic growth. Moreover, will the world’s 3.6 billion people without reliable internet access be able to benefit from the growing digitization in the world of work? Or will those farthest behind be amongst the 800 million people estimated to lose their jobs to automation by 2030? How will the world’s two billion informal workers cope with the transitions ahead?

In this context, stable food prices will be important to maintain adquate access to food. Yet, FAO’s Food Price Index started surging in the second half of 2020, and now stands at values not seen since July 2014. The IGC’s Grains and Oilseeds Index steeply rose year-on-year: nearly 20 percent for rice and wheat, 44 percent for maize and 52 percent for soybeans. Given recent trade restrictions by major exporters, upward pressure on prices is unlikely to recede

Rising prices in international markets will make it difficult for countries to pay their food import bills. However, it is not yet clear which countries will be most at risk to see food security deteriorate. One key aspect to analyze further will be the degree to which future price increases might transmit to markets serving the marginally food secure.