COVID-19 Pushes World’s Most Vulnerable Countries Toward Greater Food Insecurity

8 May 2020, NEW YORK – The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting food systems globally and pushing the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people toward greater food insecurity.

In a matter of weeks, the pandemic has laid bare the underlying risks, fragilities, and inequities in global food systems; pushing them closer to breaking point. As the pandemic and the accompanying economic shocks spread southward around the globe, they will inevitably arrive in rural areas where the vast majority of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people live and where public health and social protection are weak.

Today, while one third of food produced is wasted, some 820 million people suffer from hunger, of whom more than 100 million are already in food crisis. Prior to the pandemic, two billion people suffered from micronutrient deficiency and two billion are overweight or obese. These malnourished are the people most vulnerable to pandemic and economic dislocation.

High Representative Fekitamoeloa ‘Utoikamanu speaks at opening of dialogue on COVID-19 and impacts on food security in LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS

At a dialogue held on 7 May, 2020 with representatives of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), discussions focused on the impacts of the COVID-19 emergency on food systems in these three groups of vulnerable countries. In her opening remarks, the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu stressed that “As the economic fallout of COVID-19 unfolds and farm and food systems are affected in LDCs, LLDCs, and SIDS, many more people will become poor and food-insecure.” She added that “A global health crisis could thus cause a major food crisis and set back years of economic development and make several SDGs unattainable – unless  the LDCs, LLDCs, and SIDS receive large-scale financial emergency relief.”

While food quantities and food prices are not seen as general problems today, as they were in 2008, there are many other ways in which food value chains can become problematic and many reasons to be especially vigilant. FAO’s Chief Economist and Assistant Director General, Maximo Torero, warned that “All measures against free trade will be counterproductive. Now is not the time for restrictions or putting in place trade barriers. Now is the time to protect the flow of food around the world.”

Speaking at the dialogue, Ambassador Perks Master Ligoya, Permanent Representative of Malawi to the UN and Chair of the Group of LDCs, representing 47 countries, said “The LDCs are already suffering severe consequences in the form of commodity price shocks, loss of exports, investment and remittances along with a rapid plummet in tourism, with long-term ripple effects. With these pre-existing conditions, LDCs are particularly exposed to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic at a disproportionate magnitude.”

The already high cost of food imports in the world’s 32 LLDCs places additional strain on the economies of this group of countries. According to Ambassador Kairat Umarov, Permanent Representative of Kazakhstan to the UN and Chair of the Group of LLDCs, “Costs of imported food items are relatively high in LLDCs as the high trade costs are often passed on to consumers. Domestic foods prices in LLDCs are estimated to be three times more volatile than their coastal neighbors.”

The world’s island nations are equally on the frontline of the pandemic. Ambassador Lois Young, Permanent Representative of Belize to the UN and Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States stressed that “small island economies disproportionately rely on global markets for food supply with some 50% of SIDS importing more than 80% of their food.” She added that “As COVID-19 unfolds, we are alarmed that our islands now face the prospect of a major food security crisis.” 

LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS, consisting of 91 countries with a combined population of over 1 billon people are often highly dependent on food imports as well as on high-value agricultural exports. Furthermore, they have a large share of the population is involved in agriculture and food production, processing, transportation, and distribution, making them especially vulnerable to the pandemic.

The introduction of export restrictions and prohibitions on foodstuffs further increases the vulnerability of these countries. Preserving and improving the food economy must be an essential part of the socio-economic response to the COVID-19 crisis.