We need co-ordination to avoid a food security crisis, UN expert says

Aid agencies are currently focusing on keeping the supply of goods flowing, urging governments and regional blocs to keep their borders open and avoid protectionist measures such as export bans and import subsidies. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Preventing the coronavirus pandemic from morphing into a food security crisis is increasingly the focus of policy-makers. “Co-ordination of trade policy is the order of the day,” says Arif Husain, chief economist of the UN’s World Food Programme. “This is a global crisis which requires a global solution.”

The lockdowns have already strained food production and harvest collection in Europe, by compromising countries’ abilities to get sufficient seasonal workers, and a similar pattern is emerging across the rest of the world.

At the first meeting of a Task Force on the impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition in Africa. convened by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the African Union this week, Wolfgang Burtscher, the EU’s Director-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, stressed the importance of trade and of governments ensuring that supply chains are not broken.

In its Global Report on Food Crises published last month, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned that 265 million people in low and middle-income countries will be in acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 unless swift action is taken.

Over the last four years, the number of hungry people has been rising. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of people in acute hunger had already increased from 80 million to 135 million.

For the WFP’s chief economist Arif Husain, the WFP’s priorities are about being able to “continue to sustain the people who are already in bad shape. We as WFP assist about 100 million people of which about a third are in war zones.”

The WFP warns that Ethiopia and other sub-Saharan African countries could be on the brink of a large increase in hunger if harvests and agricultural production are derailed. Meanwhile, countries which are highly reliant on remittances, tourism, or exports of raw materials are particularly vulnerable.

“The income effect of massive job losses and loss of income will mean that many people will face a choice: either you work or you and your family don’t eat,” said Husain.

Last month, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, outlined an EU support package for African agriculture that should eventually exceed $20 billion, with similar support packages for other regions’ agriculture sectors.

Husain told EURACTIV that the WFP needs $2 billion in additional funding in the next three weeks and a further $12 billion before the end of 2020 to allow them to feed about 100 million people.

However, the WFP’s financial pressures were underscored by its announcement of a 30% reduction in food rations for all refugees in Uganda, and its withdrawal from Yemen, citing funding shortages, earlier in April.

Another priority, Husain said, is to make sure that agricultural supply chains continue to work.

For the moment, aid agencies are focusing on keeping the supply of goods flowing, urging governments and regional blocs to keep their borders open and avoid protectionist measures such as export bans and import subsidies.

At a meeting on 16 April, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the African Union described the food and agriculture system as ‘an essential service that must continue to operate during periods of lockdown, emergency, curfew and other containment measures’.

“Trade and supply lines are the like economic bloodlines and they have to flow. If they don’t, then we are in big trouble,” says Husain.

But the WFP and other international agencies are also focusing on persuading governments not to revert to protectionist trade measures.

“Experience from the past has shown that export bans and subsidies always backfire,” said Husain.

“This is when panic buying sets in. In an interconnected world, starving your neighbour is never a good policy. We need to make sure that governments’ trade policies are more connected and coordinated than right now,” he added.

We have ample global supplies to meet demand. The issue is not about supplies. It is the transport of those supplies.”

There is already evidence that the production and supply of key staple foods has been badly affected by the pandemic. India’s rice exports have fallen dramatically as a result of its own lockdown, while Vietnam, the world’s third-largest rice exporter, has restricted sales amid concerns over domestic availability.

Meanwhile, grain-importing nations globally will be dependent on this quarter’s supply before the US releases its autumn harvest onto global markets in the second half of this year.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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