Even as people around the world grapple with the medical and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, many are also facing yet another great calamity: food scarcity. Either for lack of funds or lack of supply (or both), poor and newly jobless families are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the food they need. With both economic contraction and joblessness expected to accelerate in the coming months, the number of families facing food insecurity and starvation is bound to soar.
Covid-19’s assault on global food availability is coming from two directions: On the supply side, farmers and distributors are cutting back on production as major customers—schools, restaurants, hotels, airlines—cease operations and as food industry employees become sick; on the consuming side, poor and unemployed households are running out of money and are unable to buy food, even when it is still available in local markets.
As is true of other key commodities, such as oil and iron ore, the availability of food products is highly reliant on global supply chains, with most countries depending on imports for at least some vital foodstuffs. This is true even in large countries with extensive agricultural industries of their own, such as Canada and the United States. These supply chains are vast and well-organized, but nevertheless vulnerable to disruption from storms, wars, droughts, and other systemic shocks—pandemics included.
“The continued globalization of modern food networks is introducing an unprecedented level of complexity to the global food system,” insurance giant Lloyd’s of London observed in a 2015 report on global food insecurity. “Disruptions at any one point in the system would be likely to reverberate throughout the food supply chain. Volatile food prices and increasing political instability are likely to magnify the impacts of food production shocks, causing a cascade of economic, social and political impacts across the globe.”
Lloyd’s drew this conclusion from a “food system shock” exercise its analysts conducted, akin to a Pentagon war game, and from its analysis of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, which were triggered, in part, by rising food prices across North Africa and the Middle East—a phenomenon widely attributed to severe droughts over previous months in Russia, China, and Australia that sharply reduced global grain supplies. As one producing country after another banned wheat and rice exports, worldwide grain prices soared—causing misery for poor families in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and other countries that depend on bread for a large part of their diet.
Although current conditions have not yet reached this degree of distress, it appears as if such a breakdown is beginning. “The self-defeating drive by countries to impose export controls on medical gear in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has spread like an infection to foodstuffs,” noted Cullen Hendrix of the Peterson Institute for International Economics on April 6. So far, Russia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Cambodia have banned the export of processed grains, and Vietnam has put a moratorium on new export contracts for rice. Such steps, Hendrix warned, “augur poorly for global hunger and political stability.”
The curbs on international trade and travel imposed by governments around the world in response to the pandemic have also played havoc with global supply lines. Many ships and planes remain idle because of such restrictions (or because key employees are sick or afraid to show up for work), slowing the delivery of vital supplies and adding to a surge in food prices. In East Africa, international efforts to combat a historic plague of crop-devouring locusts are being hampered by a slowdown in the delivery of pesticides.
In the United States, food delivery has been deemed an essential activity, and state and federal authorities are doing what they can to keep supply lines intact. Nevertheless, significant disruptions are already beginning to occur. Food processing and packaging—a key step between farm production and delivery to local markets—often involves close interaction among numerous (and typically low-paid) workers, and so is at high risk for the spread of the coronavirus. Large meat processing plants employing hundreds of workers are at particular risk: As of April 25, coronavirus outbreaks at 30 such plants had sickened over 3,300 workers and killed at least 17.
Workers at these and other such facilities say they were pressured into working without adequate protective gear even after state and national guidelines called for such measures. Now, with the number of Covid-19 cases soaring, the major meat processors—Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Smithfield Foods—are closing their facilities, punching a big hole in the US supply chain. Industry leaders say meat production is now down by at least 25 percent and is likely to contract further in the weeks to come. On April 28, President Trump invoked emergency powers to keep meat processing plants open, but union officials say it is nearly impossible to establish a safe environment for workers at these facilities. “Using executive power to force people back on the job without proper protections is wrong and dangerous,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
Meanwhile, farmers report that they cannot find customers for their crops as restaurants close and processing plants go idle—resulting in vast surpluses on the farm and scarcities in many towns and cities. Many dairy farmers in Wisconsin, for example, are dumping thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits every day, since their regular customers—schools, restaurants, and hotels—are not buying their products (but the cows still must be milked). Elsewhere, farmers have had to plow under ripe vegetables in order to make way for new crops. Some surplus produce is being provided to local food banks for distribution to the poor, these farmers report, but they lack the capacity to do this on a large scale. As a result, perfectly good food is being destroyed while people go hungry.
Even where supply chains remain intact, many poor countries lack the funds to pay for imported food. This has long been a problem for the least-developed countries, which often depend on international food aid to finance essential imports; it is becoming even more severe as the number of people without jobs multiplies and donor countries balk at higher aid expenditures. Many poor countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, already reeling from the collapse in employment, now face the heartbreaking challenge of feeding millions of their hungry and starving citizens.
The pandemic has posed a particularly harsh challenge for the oil-exporting countries of the Global South. Typically, these countries—including Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela—rely on oil-export revenues to help pay for imports and finance food subsidies for the poor. In recent years, oil prices have averaged around $55–60 per barrel—less than historic highs, but enough to keep most governments afloat. With the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic contraction, however, the worldwide demand for oil has plummeted and prices have fallen to less than half their January 2020 average. (A price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, now temporarily halted, also contributed to the price decline.) This, in turn, has decimated the producing countries’ budgets and left them unable to finance essential food imports—with devastating consequences for their poorer citizens, who must now pay inflated prices for whatever food is available, or go hungry.
Venezuela is at particular risk from this turn of events. Food supplies were already hard to come by in local markets before the pandemic as a result of corruption, economic mismanagement, and US sanctions against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Only the sale of crude oil via circuitous routes (sales on major markets are blocked by US sanctions) allowed the government to pay essential bills. But with oil prices cut in half by the pandemic’s crippling effect on demand, food imports have come to a virtual halt, and Venezuela’s poor now face even greater scarcity and fatally higher prices.
Historically, a contraction in food supplies and sharply rising prices have sparked widespread social unrest. This was true, for example, in 2008, when a sudden doubling in the price of grains triggered food riots around the world and led to the ouster of Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis. A few years later, of course, came the Arab Spring.
In the wake of these events, Lloyd’s conducted its “food system shock” exercise of 2015 to assess the implications for the insurance industry of such planet-wide disruptions. Under the scenario, droughts occurred in several areas of the world simultaneously and most major food-producing countries banned exports of their key products, causing shortages in import-dependent ones. The outcome: immediate price spikes in many parts of the world, leading, in many places, to fierce anti-government violence. “Food riots break out in urban areas across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America.… African troops are deployed into Nigeria but fail to stop the country from falling into civil war.… Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia experience further food protests which lead to changes in government.” And so on, around the planet.
Unrest of this sort is less likely right now, because of people’s fear of gathering in large groups, but it is occurring nevertheless. There was, for example, that April 9 outbreak in Nairobi and those protests in Dhaka. Food protests have also been reported in Honduras and South Africa. In Italy, additional troops were sent into the south and to Sicily amid fears of assaults on supermarkets sparked by impoverished residents. Even in the United States, nervous food bank volunteers have called on the National Guard for protection in several states when the number of people seeking provisions far exceeded the quantities available and the atmosphere became tense.
Some analysts also worry about widespread human migrations, as hunger intensifies in crop-scarce rural areas, prompting desperate families to move to cities or other regions in search of food and income. “If food supply chains become disrupted and livelihoods untenable, vulnerable populations are more likely to move in search of assistance,” observed the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a recent report on the impacts of Covid-19. “Such movements,” it added, “would further threaten to spread the virus” and “heighten social tensions.”
Taking Food Seriously
All these trends, troubling as they are, probably represent only a few of Covid-19’s impacts on global food (in)security. Large numbers of people are already going hungry in the United States; even larger numbers will face hunger or worse in other parts of the world as Covid-19’s multiple shock waves spread ever outward. “At the same time while dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger pandemic,” said David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), in a virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on April 21. Even before the virus began to spread, he noted, 135 million people around the world were “marching towards the brink of starvation,” now, as a result of the pandemic, that number could swiftly grow by another 130 million people.
As suggested by officials at the FAO and WFP, most of these people “marching towards the brink of starvation” live in areas of the Global South that are already suffering from drought, climate change, and the effects of war; it is plainly evident, however, that the poor and jobless in every society, even the richest, could face severe food scarcity in the months ahead. It follows that local, national, and international leaders need to devote far more attention to the food supply equation—ensuring not only that every person is provided with a basic minimum amount but also that the price of basic staples remains affordable. Doing so is not only a moral obligation we share as members of the human family, but also an essential prerequisite for national and international stability.
On the international level, ensuring adequate food supplies requires dexterous diplomacy aimed at persuading major food-producing states, including Russia and Vietnam, not to ban exports of their key staples, and for transit states to facilitate the shipment of vital supplies. In addition, immediate financial assistance should be provided to countries needing funds for essential food purchases and to the WFP for emergency deliveries to refugee camps, indigenous communities, and other populations in extreme need. (Individuals can also donate to the WFP.)
Within the United States, vigorous efforts will be needed to ensure the safety of critical food-processing facilities and the integrity of national supply lines. Equally important is the delivery of food to the poor and other communities in need. Many cities with well-organized civic and governmental institutions are already undertaking such efforts, such as the free meals being provided to adults and children at 435 grab-and-go locations at schools in New York City, but many rural and poorer communities lack such institutions and need greater attention from volunteer organizations. Some ad hoc efforts have been made by volunteers to collect surplus food from farmers lacking customers and deliver it to food banks, but a far more systemized program of this sort is needed.
Ultimately, ensuring food for all is everyone’s responsibility. Families or individuals seeking to assist local food banks and pantries, whether as volunteers or through donations, can locate the nearest one by consulting the “Find Your Local Food Bank” option at Feeding America, the nation’s leading network of local food banks. Donations can also be made to Feeding America to support these endeavors.
Ultimately, a global food crisis could affect us as much as the more immediate effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Not only will we be exposed to (or experience ourselves) genuine hunger, but we could also witness widespread starvation around the world along with popular upheavals and mass migrations. Ensuring food security should, therefore, constitute an essential component of any local, national, or international drive to overcome the harsh impacts of Covid-19.
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