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The UN has warned the world that it is on the brink of a food crisis worse than it has seen for at least 50 years, and urged governments to act quickly to avoid disaster.
Better social protections for the poor are urgently needed as the looming recession in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic may put basic nutrition out of reach, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Tuesday.
"Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have a long-term impact 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 staple crops are being maintained and the export bans and protectionism that experts feared until now have been largely avoided, the worst impacts of the pandemic and subsequent recession have yet to be felt. Guterres warned: "Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruption in the food supply chain."
Some 50 million people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty this year due to the pandemic, but the long-term effects will be even worse, as poor nutrition in childhood causes lifelong suffering. Already by the age of five, one in five children worldwide is stunted and millions more are likely to suffer the same fate if poverty rates skyrocket.
Guterres presented a three-point plan to repair the world's ailing food systems and prevent further damage. These are: concentrating aid in the worst affected regions to avoid immediate disasters and for governments to prioritize food supply chains; strengthen social protections so that young children, pregnant and lactating women and other at-risk groups, including children who do not receive enclosed school meals, receive adequate nutrition; and investing in the future, building a global recovery from the pandemic that prioritizes healthy and environmentally sustainable food systems.
Máximo Torero, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said that the world's food systems were under threat like never before in recent times, as the pandemic and closures hampered people's ability to harvest, buy and sell food. "We have to be careful," he said. "This is a food crisis very different from what we have seen."
Harvests are healthy and supplies of staple foods like grains are "robust," according to the UN report on the impact of Covid-19 on food security and nutrition, released Tuesday. But most people get their food from local markets, which are vulnerable to disruption from blockades.
Rising unemployment and loss of income associated with the lockdowns are also putting food out of reach for many struggling people. Although world markets have been stable, the price of staple foods has started to rise in some countries.
Blockades are slowing harvests, while millions of seasonal workers are unable to work. Food waste has reached damaging levels, with farmers forced to discard perishable goods as a result of problems in the supply chain, and in the meat industry plants have been forced to close in some countries.
Even before the lockdowns, the global food system was failing in many areas, according to the UN. The report pointed to conflicts, natural disasters, the climate crisis, and the arrival of plant and animal pests as existing problems. East Africa, for example, is facing the worst locust swarms in decades, while heavy rains are hampering relief efforts.
Experts warned that the additional impact of the crisis and coronavirus lockdowns, and the resulting recession, would compound the damage and starve millions of people.
"The Covid-19 crisis is attacking us from all angles," said Agnes Kalibata, special envoy of the UN secretary general for the 2021 food systems summit. "It has exposed dangerous deficiencies in our food systems and actively threatens the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, especially the more than 1 billion people who are employed in the various industries in the food systems ”.
He pointed to Latin America and the Caribbean, where a third of the population already lives in a precarious state of food insecurity, and where Brazil is fast becoming a hotspot for coronavirus cases. "Across the region, the pandemic has weakened economies and disrupted supply chains, leading to increases in food prices," he warned.
The pandemic runs the risk of reversing the progress that has been made in recent decades in lifting people out of poverty and improving their access to healthy food, the UN found.
Any remedy must also target the climate emergency, which is strongly tied to the world's food systems, said Elwyn Grainger-Jones, executive director of the CGIAR System Organization, a global agricultural research body. “Solutions must be science-based and coordinated across sectors to provide immediate response and assistance to those most in need, ongoing and inclusive recovery support and, perhaps most importantly, future resilience to all shocks, including climatic extremes ”.
Kalibata said there was also an opportunity for countries to improve food systems alongside reducing poverty and increasing global resilience to shocks.
"Food has always brought people together and it can do so again if we rebuild better when it comes to our food systems," he said.