From wildfires in California and locust attacks in Ethiopia to job losses caused by pandemic lockdowns in Italy and Myanmar, climate change and COVID-19 disrupted food production and tipped millions more people into hunger in 2020.
Now there are fears the situation could worsen next year as both the coronavirus crisis and wild weather exacerbate fragile conditions linked to conflicts and poverty in many parts of the globe, aid officials told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Even before COVID-19 hit, 135 million people were marching towards the brink of starvation. This could double to 270 million within a few short months,” warned David Beasley, head of the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), in emailed comments.
In April, Beasley, whose Rome-based organization was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, told the U.N. Security Council that the world was facing “a hunger pandemic” and “multiple famines of biblical proportions”.
“Those warnings are backed up by even stronger evidence today,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noting that Burkina Faso, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen faced famine, and the full impact of COVID-19 had yet to be felt in many places.
At the same time, the coronavirus crisis has shown how faster international action and better cooperation in areas like science and technology could help tackle the problem, he added.
Farmers and poor urban residents have so far borne the brunt of the pandemic, meaning inequality between and within countries could deepen further in 2021, said Ismahane Elouafi, chief scientist at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Cut off from markets and with a plunge in customer demand, farmers struggled to sell their produce while informal workers in urban areas, living hand to mouth, found themselves jobless as lockdowns were imposed, she said.
As a result, millions of people – from Texas and Geneva to Bangkok and Accra – were forced to rely on food handouts for the first time.
Meanwhile, more than 50 million people in East and Central Africa require emergency food aid – and those numbers are set to rise as the region braces for a harsh drought linked to the La Nina climate pattern, as well as more locust swarms, Oxfam said.
With 2020 on track to be one of the hottest years on record, African farmers have already seen a surge in tough climate conditions as well as crop-destroying pests, said Agnes Kalibata, U.N. special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit.
“The double whammy of extreme weather and COVID-19 has brought the shortcomings of our global food system into sharp relief,” said Kalibata, a former Rwandan agriculture minister.
Two recent U.N. reports warned that the coronavirus pandemic could cause a spike in extreme poverty.
One in 33 people will require humanitarian aid to meet basic needs like food and water in 2021, a rise of 40% from this year, said one. Another said a billion people could be pushed into destitution by 2030.
COVID-19 is “a harbinger” of what the climate crisis will bring, said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh.
“(The virus) hit us in a matter of days and months. Hopefully, it’ll be over in a year or two, if everything goes well with the vaccine – but the climate change problem is going to linger for much, much longer,” he said.
“One of the principal impacts is likely to be on food production, in all the continents of the world, on agriculture, on fisheries, on livestock,” he added.
Climate action has often focused on cutting planet-heating emissions from energy and transport, but transforming food systems is also crucial to keep global warming to manageable levels, said a recent study led by the University of Oxford.
Even if fossil-fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, food production could still push temperatures beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, the lowest goal in the Paris climate pact, it warned.
But changing the incredibly complex and increasingly global web of food systems is a big challenge, not least because there are no substitutes for food, said lead author Michael Clark.
Making the production of food more sustainable will require a focus on how it is grown, what is being consumed and ways to reduce loss and waste, he said.
Pandemic-induced lockdowns have fostered changing attitudes in rich countries towards food waste and meat consumption, both of which fuel greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, there is growing recognition among experts that a narrow focus on crop productivity has come at the expense of the environment, equity and nutrition, said James Lomax, a food systems expert with the U.N. Environment Program.
Many in the food industry have started to grasp this too, even before COVID-19 disrupted supply chains, ate into earnings and highlighted the links between agriculture, animal products and zoonotic diseases, he said.
These shifts, together with high-profile summits scheduled next year on the interlinked issues of food, health, nature and climate, offer the opportunity to radically change how food is produced and consumed, experts said.
“We have an opportunity to make it right,” as thinking converges around the gatherings, said FAO’s Elouafi.
U.N. envoy Kalibata hopes the food systems summit will yield ambitious goals and clarity on what countries, communities and businesses must do differently over the next decade, as well as more financing to help realise those aims.
Solutions already exist to make food systems sustainable and environmentally friendly, such as seaweed-based cattle feed to reduce methane emissions and plant-based diets, said Jessica Fanzo, professor of global food policy and ethics at Johns Hopkins University. But political will is needed to push those to the forefront, she added. As with climate change, she hopes a youth movement will emerge around food to advocate for more ambitious change.
Most people participate in the world’s food systems two or three times a day when they eat, she noted. “It should be something that is incredibly valued by society, (but) it’s just often not,” she added.