Governments and international institutions are becoming increasingly worried about the growing constraints on access to food around the world as coronavirus disrupts economies and leaves workers without income for sustenance.
While global stocks of staples including grains and pulses are deemed to be sufficient, supply chains are coming under pressure and workers in developing countries with little in the way of a financial cushion are losing out on earnings.
Agriculture ministers from the G20 group of major developed and developing economies held a virtual meeting on Tuesday to discuss the situation. Experts warn hunger and discontent could drive a fresh wave of mass migration towards wealthier countries.
In a statement after the meeting the ministers said they had agreed to “guard against any unjustified restrictive measures that could lead to excessive food price volatility in international markets and threaten the food security and nutrition of large proportions of the world population”.
Any measures taken by governments to limit the spread of the pandemic must “be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary, and . . . do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global food supply chains”, they said, calling for “enhanced co-operation between the public and private sectors to help mobilise rapid and innovative responses to impacts of this pandemic on the agriculture and food sectors”.
Maximo Torero, assistant director-general at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), said: “Two months ago no one was really talking about food security, but now it is what everybody is talking about.”
The UN’s World Food Programme warned on Tuesday that the number of people facing acute food insecurity could double in 2020 from the year before, to 265m. The pandemic and lockdown measures combined with rising unemployment and limited access to food could lead to violence and conflict, the WFP warned.
Arif Husain, WFP chief economist, said that if people could not get access to food, it could trigger a mass movement of refugees of the sort that occurred in Europe in 2016.
Conflict regions in parts of Africa are particularly at risk, including the Central African Republic, Chad, north-east Nigeria and South Sudan, the WFP said, as well as countries with large refugee populations, including Lebanon and Uganda.
Anger at a shortage of food parcels triggered violent protests across South Africa last week and this week. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, hunger is already an issue and is likely to get worse in the violence-wracked north-east, the heart of the decade-old Boko Haram insurgency.
“This is a crisis layered on top of a crisis, and the situation risks getting out of hand,” said Chris Nikoi, regional director for the WFP in west Africa. “People are on the brink.”
In large Nigerian cities including Lagos and the capital Abuja, where lockdowns were extended until April 27, the government faces a “very difficult decision” on whether to extend them further, given many people live hand-to-mouth, said Amaka Anku, Africa head at consultancy Eurasia Group.
“I think the risk of social unrest is rising exponentially if the lockdown is extended,” she said. “What do these young guys who are hungrier than they’re used to do?”
In Asia, humanitarian officials and aid agencies are also on high alert.
According to the UN, the risk of hunger is highest in Asia’s poorer countries, including India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and in economies that rely on overseas remittances or tourism, where receipts have been devastated by Covid-19. Manufacturing sectors such as textiles have also seen substantial cancellations of orders, putting millions of jobs at risk across south and south-east Asia.
The Philippines’ military this week indicated it was prepared for a martial law-type lockdown in the event of unrest, although no order has been given yet.
“There are two kinds of risks that I see: first, that supply chains start to break down for getting food from the farm to the fork,” said David Dawe, senior economist at the FAO in Bangkok. “But bigger than that is the huge loss of employment and income that some people are facing.”
Weakening emerging market currencies have pushed up the cost of imports for countries that are reliant on overseas food purchases and raised the cost of debt repayments for borrowings in dollars, eroding countries’ capacity to finance imports.
The WFP has appealed for donor nations to pay $1.9bn of already-pledged commitments early to help it stockpile food for distribution to vulnerable countries when needed. It also asked for a further $350m to finance air transport to affected nations. But the WFP said that barely a quarter of the total had been raised in each appeal so far with only a handful of countries — including the UK, Canada, Denmark and Norway — contributing to the air link appeal.
Reporting by Emiko Terazono, David Pilling and Andrew England in London, John Reed in Bangkok, Neil Munshi in Antwerp, Michael Peel in Brussels and Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg