A top UN food official called for a stable commercial food supply chain so that humanitarian food aid can be delivered normally during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite some progress, 270 million people are acutely hungry in the world, and there are about 3.1 million children under five who die from preventable causes every year, said Arif Husain, chief economist of the World Food Programme (WFP). A combination of factors including regional conflicts, declining currency values, rising debts, and broken food systems in low-income countries has contributed to the hunger. On top of that is the pandemic.
“We have been in a bad situation, in rising hunger situation, despite our resolve to get to zero hunger by 2030,” Husain said in a keynote speech to the World Agri-tech Innovation Summit last week. The COVID-19 pandemic “has made a situation which was already so bad even worse.”
“On the COVID side, first and foremost, we need to save lives,” said Husain. “You need to make sure that the commercial supply chains continue to work because, frankly, if the commercial supply chain stopped for one reason or the other, so would the humanitarian supply chains.”
The pandemic has set back progress toward the UN development goal of having zero hunger by 2030. According to the WFP, 135 million suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change and economic downturns. The pandemic could now double that number, putting an additional 130 million people at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020.
Fortunately, farmers worldwide are continuing to produce, lessening the risk of major disruptions to food supply, said Hans Johr, Corporate Head of Agriculture at Nestle.
“If you do not have a finished product on the shelves, that may be a small tragedy, but really a big, big issue is if farmers are not going to continuously produce, and if you have not only empty shelves but empty fields,” said Johr. “One of the big issues is really to make sure that the cash flows into rural areas, through the purchasing of agricultural materials, through factories and into the supply chain.”
The pandemic has underlined how vital a resilient supply chain and ecosystem is to the global agri-food industry, said Mark Thompson, Chief Corporate Development & Strategy Officer at Nutrien, one of the largest agricultural inputs companies in the world.
“As an industry or a society, we don't think about COVID-19 as a one-off remote event that will never happen again,” said Thompson. “It’s a fact that a crisis has raised questions and surfaced issues that are critical to food security and the resilience of the food system that are going to be tested again.”
In China, most of the grain production comes from spring planting. Covid-19 disrupted the production of agricultural inputs and impacted logistics. Farmers risked not getting key inputs in time for spring planting because of tight cash flow due to difficulties in selling their harvests, according to Xin Yi Lim, Executive Director of Sustainability and Agricultural Impact at Pinduoduo (PDD), China’s largest agricultural e-commerce platform with nearly 700 million users.
To help farmers, PDD held a Spring Planting Festival where farmers could buy subsidized agricultural inputs and enjoy prioritized logistics. It also organized livestreamed lectures for farmers with the China Agricultural University to replace the offline training that was disrupted by the pandemic. The company also created a dedicated portal to highlight produce from hard-hit regions and funnel traffic from consumers looking for agricultural produce.
There are things that could be learned from experiences of countries including China to boost agricultural output and build a resilient supply chain to help lift more people out of hunger, said Husain from WFP.
“This year we had ample stocks, so price has stayed reasonably well despite so much pressure on the purchasing power,” said Husain. “But next year could be different. Why? Because we are not out of the woods yet.”