Pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in food systems, threatening lives and livelihoods: Report

About 10 per cent of the world population – between 720 and 811 million – were undernourished last year, with more than half of them, i.e. about 418 million living in Asia, the report said

Representative image
Representative image

Dr Gyan Pathak

Global hunger level has been skyrocketing since the outbreak of COVID-19. In 2020, it rose by more than in the previous five years combined. Between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger during the first year of the pandemic, and the world is off the track to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

Since India is among the worst hit countries, which is facing the spectre a third wave while the second wave has hardly been over, a new wave of poverty and hunger is knocking at the door.

New data that represents the first comprehensive global assessment of food insecurity carried out since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic reveals that it would have great implication in the world where one in five children is already stunted. To prevent this, we must transform our agri-food systems so as to provide everyone access to the food they need, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has said.

The pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of people, says ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021’ jointly prepared by FAO, World Food Programme (WFP), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), World Health Organization (WHO), and UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

The report has been prepared for better understanding of the issue before the UN Food Systems Summit which is scheduled to be held later this year.

About 10 per cent of the world population – between 720 and 811 million – were undernourished last year, with more than half of them, i.e. about 418 million living in Asia, the report said.

South Asia obviously is the worst region in Asia. Since India houses largest number of people in South Asia, it is also home to the largest number of hungry and poor in the region.

The Global Hunger Index 2020, had reported that 14 per cent of the population of India was undernourished, and had ranked it 94th out of 107 countries in the world.

COVID-19 has brought mass poverty back in India. After 45 years, the world’s fastest poverty-reducing country added maximum number of poor in a year, as various estimates have already indicated. The poverty profile of India in 2019 showed about 27 crore people under extreme poverty line, while the food security programmes have announced to cover about 81 crore people. Food support is not reaching the intended people because only about 26 crore people have been provided with ration cards, and it is not working for migrant workers because government was not able to create the online system for which the Supreme Court of India has fixed a deadline for July 31.

India is thus clearly facing a new wave of poverty and hunger. A UN radio programme titled “Amid India’s COVID battle, a new wave of poverty and hunger” has also highlighted the issue of increasing poverty and hunger in the country. The programme has highlighted the dichotomy of India being food surplus and non-availability of food to a large number of people leading to severe malnutrition.

Women and children suffered the most, the programme emphasized, with pointing towards great gender gap. Migrants, poor, and tribal communities were also the most impacted during the second wave of the pandemic. The worst part is that people don’t have money enough to purchase healthy food especially after spending huge amounts of money on health during the pandemic, the programme highlighted.

Now the five institutions that have come out with the global report have maintained that ‘reversing this situation will likely take years, if not decades.’

Globally, 2.4 billion people did not have access to sufficiently nutritious food in 2020, which is an increase of nearly 320 million people in one year. After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, the prevalence of undernourished increased 1.5 per cent in just one year, reaching a level of around 9.9 per cent. It has been estimated that 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030, if situation remains the same.

Food insecurity has been on the rise since 2014, and the year 2020 has added equal to the last five years combined. Nearly one in three people in the world i.e. about 2.7 billion, did not have access to adequate food in 2020. Close to 12 per cent of the global population was severely food insecure in 2020 representing 928 million people – 148 million more than in 2019.

Gender gap has grown even larger – food insecurity for women increased to 10 per cent compared to men in 2020 from 6 per cent in 2019.

The high cost of healthy diets coupled with persistent high levels of income inequality put healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people, and it may increase further.

Children’s healthy development has suffered too, with more than 149 million, i.e. about 22 per cent, under-fives affected by stunting globally; 45.4 million, i.e. about 6.7 per cent wasting, and 370 million missing out on school meals in 2020, because of schools closures during the pandemic.

The figures of stunting and wasting are expected to be higher, the report said.

Today, 150 million youngsters still do not have access to a school lunch, said WFP, which urged countries to restore these programmes and put in place “even better ones … that give children and communities a future.” Malnutrition is most likely to be aggravated which will impact productivity.

“The report highlights a devastating reality: the path to Zero Hunger is being stopped dead in its tracks by conflict, climate and COVID-19,” WFP Executive Director David Beasley has said. Children’s future potential “is being destroyed by hunger”, he insisted, adding, “The world needs to act to save this lost generation before it’s too late.”

The world is at a critical juncture, the report has emphasized. It is very different to where it was six years ago when it committed to the goal of ending hunger, food insecurity, and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. The world has not been generally progressing towards achieving the goal, and the pandemic has worsened the situation further and challenges have multiplied. The fragility of our food systems has widely been exposed.

The report has also highlighted how climate change has left communities in developing countries most exposed to hunger. Weather related shocks and stresses are also “driving hunger like never before”.

The five agencies have suggested in the report that “it will take a tremendous effort for the world to honour its pledge to end hunger by 2030”, and called for food production to be more inclusive, efficient, resilient, and sustainable.

(IPA Service)

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