From pandemic to famine: Can world meet food crisis fast enough?

Why We Wrote This

Growing hunger in wealthy nations doesn’t compare to the famine expected in the developing world, the United Nations’ top food official warns. Wealthier nations are chipping in to help – but a strategic coming together on a global level will be crucial.

Courtesy of Kaynat Salmani
Gulshan Khatoon (left) and Mohammed Amanat with their son and daughter at their home in Delhi where the family remains under India’s strict lockdown.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Around the world, millions of fathers and mothers are encountering food insecurity for the first time. Strict lockdowns have eliminated informal and menial jobs, leaving tens of millions with no income.

At the same time, with transport disrupted, farmers can’t distribute their produce.

The prospect of widespread food shortages has prompted the World Food Program to warn that the added punch of the pandemic will mean unprecedented starvation unless the world takes prompt and coordinated action.

“This is not a Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling situation,” says David Beasley, executive director. “If we don’t act now, we are going to have famine of biblical proportions.”

In India under lockdown, Mohammed Amanat has not worked since March. For the first time he’s had to accept a handout – rations of lentils, flour, oil, and spices provided by a U.S. charity in Delhi.

“I never had to accept rations before, but now we have no other choice,” he says, seated under a corrugated metal awning with his pregnant wife and two children. Already three months behind on rent, he says if he can’t work soon his only option would be to return home to Bihar.

“But our families tell us things are even worse there. How could I do that to my family?”

When Mohammed Amanat migrated from the rural Indian state of Bihar to a teeming New Delhi five years ago, it was with the idea of becoming a better provider for the family the young man hoped to have.

In his modest way, Mr. Amanat has accomplished his mission. Now with a daughter and a son, and a third child on the way, Mr. Amanat has always earned enough – first at a tobacco company and more recently as a day laborer in construction – to feed his growing family.

His wife, Gulshan Khatoon, even managed to save enough from her husband’s $4-a-day pay to occasionally buy the children milk, or add chicken or vegetables to the dals and curries she prepared over the open fire in the family’s one-room corrugated-metal shanty.

But now with the pandemic, those days of relative plenty are over.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

With India’s strict lockdown only now loosening, Mr. Amanat has not worked since March. For the first time ever he’s had to accept a handout – rations of lentils, flour, oil, salt, and spices provided by an American charity working with the Delhi police to organize weekly food distributions.

“I never had to accept rations before, but now we have no other choice,” he says via videocall, seated under a corrugated metal awning with his family. Already three months behind on rent, he says if he can’t work soon his only option would be to return to Bihar.

“But our families tell us things are even worse there. Food is becoming scarce and they don’t have rations,” he adds. “How could I do that to my family?”

Mr. Amanat is not alone in his predicament. Around the world, millions of fathers and mothers who have always been able to feed their families are encountering food insecurity for the first time. Strict lockdowns like India’s have eliminated informal and menial jobs, leaving tens of millions with no income.

At the same time, with transport disrupted, farmers can’t distribute their produce.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
People wait to receive free food at an industrial area, during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New Delhi April 23, 2020.

The prospect of widespread food shortages and disrupted supply chains has prompted the World Food Program – which was already predicting that 2020 could find more than 135 million people in severe hunger – to warn that the added punch of the pandemic will mean unprecedented famine and starvation unless the world takes prompt and coordinated action.

“This is not a Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling situation,” says David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations’ famine prevention arm and the world’s largest humanitarian agency. “If we don’t act now,” he adds, “we are going to have famine of biblical proportions.”

The tell-it-like-it-is former governor of South Carolina, who has built a can-do reputation with global leaders, says a “perfect storm” of events could leave more than a quarter of a billion people in severe hunger: the refugee-fueled worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, the pandemic, and now a plague of desert locusts destroying 1 million acres of new crops in East Africa.

The United States and other developed countries are also seeing food supply chains disrupted, shortages of some products like meat, and rising hunger. But as worrisome as that is, experts say the food insecurity in developing and poor countries is of a different order.

“I’m not talking about people going to bed hungry,” says Mr. Beasley, addressing a recent Atlantic Council webinar. “You could have 150,000 to 300,000 people dying a day if this thing does not get addressed promptly.” 

Many food supply analysts and humanitarian assistance experts would add a fourth factor to Mr. Beasley’s perfect storm. A nationalist wave has turned many countries inward, prioritizing domestic issues such as the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

Global leaders, including the United States, are stepping up, Mr. Beasley says, though he maintains they still must do more.

At the same time, the world is benefiting from a new wave of young food-production and supply-chain entrepreneurs, many of whom got their start in climate activism and see the pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine essential activities, from farming to food delivery.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Juanita Jones wears her wedding dress to celebrate her 19th wedding anniversary as she helps run a donated food distribution point from Serve Your City at the mixed-income Townhomes on Capitol Hill community in Washington April 25, 2020.

Mr. Beasley says he has heard the dire warnings of donor fatigue after years of acute crisis, but insists he’s not seeing it. In particular, he rejects the widespread view that the U.S. is retreating from its leadership role.

“We keep hearing that the U.S. has backed off its multilateral commitments,” he says, before pointing to a near doubling in U.S. funding of the WFP over the last three years. “The message that tells is that [the U.S. is] not backing down.”

Under President Barack Obama, he notes, U.S. funding of the WFP reached a new high of $1.9 billion (of about a $6 billion budget). Last year under the Trump administration, the U.S. contribution climbed to $3.4 billion (of a total $8.3 billion raised for food programs).

Still, Mr. Beasley says last year’s budget will be “nowhere near enough” to stave off the dire levels of food insecurity and even starvation he foresees. The food security czar says he is focused on getting major donors like the U.S. and Germany to send their contributions now.

“What I’m saying is ... go ahead and give us now what you’re going to give us ... so we can pre-position food before the worst of the food supply-chain breakdown sets in.”

Another message Mr. Beasley emphasizes to world leaders is that acting now to nip looming famine in the bud will mitigate the instability that accompanies severe hunger – and which reverberates to undermine countries’ national security.

Still, what alarms some food supply experts is that they’re not seeing the international community coming together to address a looming global food crisis the way it has in the past – as in 2007-08, when prices of basic food commodities suddenly spiked.

“In response to the last [food] crisis, you saw a huge and sudden mobilization of effort, and agreement around principles to follow to address food insecurity worldwide, and money put behind those efforts,” says Caitlin Welsh, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ global food security program in Washington. “At this point, we haven’t seen that mobilization.”

Noting moreover that in 2007-08 it was the Group of Seven wealthy countries and the G-20 most-developed countries that led a global effort, she adds, “[We] haven’t seen them yet, which is disappointing.”

Ms. Welsh, who directed the National Security Council’s global economic engagement in the Obama White House, says the multilateral organizations’ focus in the last food crisis was agricultural productivity.

Courtesy of Ndeye Marie Ndieguene
Ndeye Marie Ndieguene works with farmers in the village of Makka Sarr, Senegal.

The pandemic is revealing a new set of priorities, she adds. “The response this crisis calls for is looking at food systems, so not just farm production but … food transportation, labor, food processing, storage, and then marketing,” she says. “The response we’re going to see, I hope, is a different one, and broader than the response to the last crisis.”

Echoes of Ms. Welsh’s thinking can be heard in the ideas of Ndéye Marie Aïda Ndieguene, a young food-systems entrepreneur in Senegal.

Ms. Ndieguene describes a Senegal under lockdown that is not unlike Mr. Amanat’s India.

“So many people work in the informal sectors of the economy that aren’t functioning right now, but at the same time the government has banned movement between regions of the country, so that makes it difficult for farmers to get their produce to market,” says Ms. Ndieguene. “That combination has many people here declaring, ‘We are not going to die of COVID-19, we are going to die from hunger.’”

But Ms. Ndieguene, who has won international awards for her design of a food warehouse that reduces food loss, is springing into action to help address Senegal’s spiking food insecurity.

Starting with the farming contacts she made through her warehouse project, she has developed a digital community marketplace that links farmers and their products with new markets. She is also nurturing a farming community of 150 women and girls who are interested in particular in ways to support Senegalese women.

What Ms. Ndieguene is finding is that the pandemic, while a dire threat to so many, is also prompting new thinking and innovative solutions to a problem like food insecurity.

“Of course the pandemic is not something good – people are sick, people are dying, people are going hungry,” she says. “But it is also providing the occasion for all of us to stop and consider new ways and new solutions, and not just about food security. It’s a general stop for all humanity,” she adds, “to think about the impact of how we are living.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.