The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has published its State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020, which warns that even without accounting for problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, food security has continued to decline around the world. The last three editions of the FAO’s report have all warned that hunger is rising, after several decades of decline. Severe undernourishment has increased in all continents except Europe and North America and there are 60 million more undernourished people in the world compared to 2014. According to the report, conflict and economic slowdowns are among the main drivers of the worldwide increase in food insecurity and are often exacerbated by climate-related shocks.
According to another report published by the World Food Programme earlier this year, conflict was the main driver of food insecurity in 2019. Out of the countries where conflict was identified as a primary cause of hunger, over half were in the Middle East and Asia, while the Lake Chad Basin and central Sahel also experienced high levels of food insecurity. As of July 2020, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) lists South Sudan (where a famine was declared in 2017), Yemen and Nigeria as areas of highest concern. In each of these countries, FEWS identifies conflict as the primary source of precarious food security. While conflict conditions have lessened in South Sudan, sporadic attacks have been reported, while household coping capacity has been significantly reduced after years of fighting. In Yemen, a protracted conflict has reduced incomes, increased food prices and disrupted livelihoods. Attacks by Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria have internally displaced 2.5 million people. Out of the 19 countries the FAO classified as being under protracted crisis in 2017, all were engaged in some form of violent conflict at the time.
While violent conflict is a common feature of acutely food-insecure countries, the recent FAO report also notes that the effects of conflict are often exacerbated by climate shocks. The number of extreme climate events such as extreme heat, drought, floods and storms has roughly doubled since the early 1990s, which threatens all aspects of food security. Crop losses stemming from climate disasters cause reductions in food availability as well as increases in food prices, especially during the lean season. Climate related agricultural losses also reduce rural incomes, worsening food access. The combined impact of conflict and climate change is especially severe. In 2017, 14 out of 34 food insecure countries suffered from the double impact of climate shocks and violent conflict, leading to acute levels of hunger and malnutrition in affected countries.
Although the FAO’s 2020 food security report acknowledges that it is too early to be able to predict how the COVID-19 pandemic will influence food security, it acknowledges that it is likely to increase levels of malnutrition and hunger. In the short term, the report identifies food chain disruptions, overwhelmed health systems, a discontinuation of community programmes and school meals and altered purchasing patterns as threats to food and nutritional security. In the longer term, economic shocks are likely to fuel increases in malnutrition and hunger. The World Bank has predicted a major global recession due to the shock of the pandemic and related lockdown measures. If that is the case, it is possible that food prices will spike as incomes fall, limiting food accessibility and further hindering the fight against food insecurity.