On the Brink of a Food Crisis?


On the Brink of a Food Crisis?

In the past few months, our minds have been fully occupied by a pandemic that breaks out among us, not realising that locusts have also been causing much affliction in our world. But just how are these two disasters related? More importantly, how will they affect our present and shape our future?

“COVID-19 is evolving from a health crisis to becoming a food crisis for the poorest communities as the pandemic roils economies around the world. It is anticipated that the secondary impacts of global food insecurity and decimating livelihoods will threaten more lives than the disease itself,” says Judy Ho, Livelihoods Technical Advisor of World Vision International. Global food insecurity is expected to be further aggravated by locust swarms, as they continue to sweep through various countries in Africa. It is expected that this will also defer the process of achieving zero hunger, the second of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which many countries have been working together to attain.

The Global Progress on Ending Hunger

According to The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019, the number of people living in hunger has been increasing since 2014. The situation in Sub-Saharan Africa has particularly worsened, with the number of undernourished rising from 195 million in 2014 to 237 million in 2017. And while stunting and wasting among children are in decline, the progress was still too slow. 149 million children under the age of five, most of whom living in Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, were still stunted. The report points out that more intensive efforts are needed to meet the target of bringing the number of stunted children down to 83 million by 2030.

The same report also highlights the need to empower small-scale food producers to fully participate in development. As these producers are often poor and their capacities and resources limited, they often face food insecurity and lack access to markets and services. However, in countries with data in Africa, Asia and Latin America, they still make up 40 to 85 per cent of all food producers. Therefore, helping them manage their natural resources sustainably, adapt to climate change, and overcome barriers in accessing markets, resources, information and knowledge, can all contribute to solving the problem of global hunger. To put it simply, judging by their current progress, countries are failing to meet the targets set out in SDG 2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture), and this year’s pandemic and locust invasions will only further delay that process.

Children Most Affected by Locusts

Since the turn of the year, locust swarms have begun to form in different parts of Africa. Some experts suggest that this could be due to climate change, as heavy rains and humid conditions caused by the cyclones that hit Africa last year provided good breeding conditions for locusts. With locust invasions, cyclones, floods and droughts occurring one after another, a serious food crisis can be expected to follow.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) points out that a swarm of locusts that covers one square kilometre can eat as much food as 35,000 people do per day. Kenya, being one of the most affected countries, is experiencing its worst locust invasion in 70 years, with the largest swarm spanning 60 kilometres long and 40 kilometres wide. Other countries of the continent are also experiencing similar catastrophic outcomes. Angola is currently facing the most serious drought in over 30 years. More than 2.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including about 85,000 malnourished children. As most of the locals are farmers and lack other sources of income, some children have been forced to drop out of school, or even married off in exchange for food for their families.
For 15-year-old Angolan girl Cavo, her only option in the midst of the food crisis is to sell her body to afford food for her mother, who has a disability and cannot work, and her ageing grandmother. Cavo also goes to people’s homes to collect dirty clothes to wash, but the income is meagre. To survive the drought and food insecurity, she can only think of selling her body to earn money. However, she is often denied payment and may earn as little as US$0.4. Sometimes, her family must go to bed without eating. Cavo says she would rather be studying like her peers, instead of exposing herself to the risk of getting pregnant or diseases like HIV in exchange for food and her family’s comfort. The drought will pass, but the hurt and pain that it has brought Cavo will perhaps never heal.

Food Supply Devastated by the Pandemic

While locusts have severely impacted the production and supply of food, the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the past few months only adds misery to food supply of countries that have been affected by frequent natural disasters due to climate change.

“The unforeseen movement restrictions intended to stop the spread of the virus have impaired agricultural production and logistics, dampening the availability and supply of most basic food items in many places,” highlights Judy Ho. The restrictions also mean that there are no workers to farm and harvest, which has lessened domestic supply to meet the demands while pressure on global food markets spikes up food prices. As a result, food becomes even more unaffordable for the poor. In Thailand, rice prices hit a seven-year high, rising from $500 per tonne at the end of March to an average of $570 per tonne by April.

As work for farmers and migrant workers has been suspended, families are losing their income sources and suffering from lower purchasing power. Many have resorted to reducing the number of meals consumed each day to cope with food shortages, and their situation is very worrying.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that, if no actions are taken, the combined impact of COVID-19, climate change and conflict will expose over 265 million people to a food crisis, almost doubling last year’s actual figures. Various African countries, including Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Angola and Zimbabwe, have been bearing the brunt of climate change in recent years. These countries are experiencing more frequent disasters, such as droughts, floods, cyclones and locusts. An unbearable food crisis would be the most likely consequence should a COVID-19 outbreak occur in these countries.

What We Can Do

In response to the increasingly severe food crises, World Vision is conducting emergency responses in multiple countries across East and Southern Africa. We are providing basic necessities, such as food and clean water, for people in need, ensuring children and women are nourished and protected, and responding to any other emergency needs that emerge. Also, to curb the spread of the pandemic around the world, World Vision is currently responding in over 70 countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh (including Rohingya refugees), Brazil (at the border with Venezuela), The Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Iraq, Kenya, Lebanon, Mongolia, The Philippines, Senegal, etc.
World Vision is calling on governments worldwide to ensure continuity of the supply chain for essential commodities and services to preserve lives and productive assets of the most vulnerable. At such critical times, when disasters strike one after another, international non-government organisations (INGOs) should be immediately channelling support to protect the most vulnerable communities. As individuals, we may consider the following recommendations provided by the United Nations’ 170 Daily Actions to help:
  • Read a book on hunger. A greater understanding of its causes will better prepare you to make a difference.
  • Many hungry people hesitate to ask for help because of the stigma and shame of it. Speak up about misconceptions and educate others about the realities of hungry persons.
  • Support food assistance programmes.
  • Provide food for schools in developing countries. When there is lunch available, attendance increases, which also means more girls marry later and have smaller families.
  • Many emergency food providers need specialised skills such as accounting, social media or writing skills. Volunteer your expertise once a week.

Hunger is nothing new, but its severity, complexity and impact can vary according to the world’s environmental and economic status, as well as disasters. There is no once-and-for-all cure to end hunger, but we can all play a part. As Mother Theresa says, “If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

Famine a Real Possibility as Locusts Eat away Livelihoods

In Laisamis, Kenya, locust swarms have devoured both crops and grass for livestock, leaving the locals at risk of food insecurity.
Laisamis, situated in Kenya’s Marsabit County, is one of the worst-hit areas in the ongoing locust invasions in East Africa. Here, locusts have infested vast lands and devoured vegetation in the area. According to Adan, a local agricultural officer, almost all villages in the area have been affected by the harmful insects. “Most of the people here are pastoralists. So it’s painful for them to watch helplessly as these locusts clear vegetation that serve as pasture for their livestock,” he says.

Kevin, a father with three children, is already feeling depressed about the situation. “These locusts are attacking everything. They have eaten shrubs and all the grass here. And you know this is a dry area that can’t support crop farming. If we don’t have food for our livestock, how will I feed my family?” he laments.

A report released by the FAO in April 2020 states that, as more swarms form and mature in northern and central Kenya, the current situation in East Africa remains extremely alarming. The report also warns of possible widespread destruction of crops and pastures by locusts in the coming months, leading to food security challenges for most households.

Apart from the locust invasion, the communities are also beginning to grapple with the spread of COVID-19. The impact on families and children is expected to be huge, while their livelihoods will also be adversely affected. “Without intervention, a potential famine situation is expected in the coming months,” notes Maina, Associate Director for Disaster Management at World Vision Kenya.

A Pandemic that Feels Like a Death Sentence

Before the pandemic arrived in South Sudan, Atim was eagerly anticipating a good harvest, but now she is worried.
“Since a COVID-19 case was declared in South Sudan, I have not been myself. I was worried. How will we survive without our farm work?” says 45-year old Atim, a farmer.

According to the FAO, at least 95 percent of the people in South Sudan depend on farming, fishing and herding to meet their daily needs. Most farmers survive on their farm produce to provide food for their families, send their children to school and pay their medical bills.

“COVID-19 is like a death sentence to us vulnerable women who depend on farming to feed our children,” shares 36-year-old Ajak, a farmer and mother of six. “At a time when we hope to give our children the best life after several years of conflict, COVID-19 takes away our good plans. Why?”

Atim and her friends are passionate and happy about their work as farmers. However they are now all worried about what will happen next with the pandemic. Atim lost all her children to various diseases because she could not afford the medical bills. Alone, she helps her sister take care of her four children. She is scared that they will die of hunger if COVID-19 stops her from farming and putting food on the table.

Cultivation in South Sudan is normally done in two seasons: first from April to July, and then from August to November. Yet, as control and restrictions due to COVID-19 continue, starting cultivation is not going to be possible. “We work in a group and reserve part of our farm products for food, savings and some as seeds for the next planting season,” says Atim.

She adds, “But with lockdowns, it will be difficult to gather people to farm. The large area that we cultivate needs a lot of hands to plant. Then there is also the required social distancing and provision of handwashing facilities recommended by the Ministry of Health. These all make it difficult for us to farm.”

Berhanu, World Vision’s Food Security and Livelihoods Coordinator, says the restrictions on movement will delay land preparation and other farming activities. He is also concerned that this will have an impact on crop production in the following seasons.

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