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Sharp increase in food insecurity because of COVID-19, says global food crises report update

In 2019, as many as 135 million people across 55 countries required urgent food, nutrition, and livelihood assistance, according to the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises. This was the highest global number of acutely food-insecure people on record. The GRFC’s mid-year update, released last week, takes a look at recent data for 26 of those countries (plus Togo) and specifically examines the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the 27 countries examined by the mid-year update, an estimated 97.6 million people faced “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3 or above) in 2019. Between March and September 2020, that number had risen to between 101 and 105 million people. In addition, the number of people facing “stressed” food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 2) rose by 130.5 million people in 20 countries. 

The majority of the world’s food crises in 2019 were driven by conflict, extreme weather events, economic shocks, or a combination of those factors. While it is too soon to precisely quantify the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mid-year update echoes findings from the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition report, which estimated that as many as 132 million additional people may become undernourished by the end of 2020 due to the global outbreak. A similar IFPRI projection foresees a dramatic increase in global poverty, with possibly near 150 million more people living in poverty and food insecurity this year.

COVID-19 is having both direct and indirect impacts on food security and economic wellbeing around the world, with particularly harmful effects on poor populations in developing countries. The health effects of the pandemic directly touch households’ ability to purchase and consume healthy food. When people fall ill or need to quarantine because of COVID-19 symptoms, they may not be able to work; they may also need to spend savings on healthcare instead of food. As a result, COVID-19 directly harms these households’ purchasing power and overall food security. 

While agriculture and food sectors were deemed “essential” and thus exempt from many of the harshest lockdown measures, local and regional food systems still faced disruptions in transportation and trade during the height of the pandemic. Limitations on travel hampered migrant workers, leading to labor shortages in some regions. These travel restrictions also impacted livestock producers’ access to land and markets, which disrupted livestock value chains in some areas, particularly Africa. In many countries, open air markets were closed, leading to food loss (especially for perishable foods like fruits and vegetables), local food shortages, and price spikes. Consumers in many countries shifted their dietary choices in favor of cheaper staples, which resulted in losses for producers of higher value, more perishable foods; these dietary changes could also lead to micronutrient deficiencies in the long term. 

In terms of indirect impacts, the pandemic could drive further conflict due to high unemployment, increased poverty, and social unrest. In addition, governments may have fewer resources to devote to conflict prevention and peacekeeping efforts, both because they are focusing policies on managing the pandemic itself and because many countries are now facing economic recession. Since conflict was already a major driver of food insecurity before COVID-19 broke out, more unrest will likely only lead to worsening hunger, the authors of the mid-year update of the GRFC indicate.

The GRFC, published by the Food Security Information Network (FSIN) and the Global Network Against Food Crises, uses the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) or the Cadre Harmonisé (CH) systems whenever possible to classify the severity and magnitude of acute food insecurity. Under these systems, populations in Crisis (IPC/CH Phase 3), Emergency (IPC/CH Phase 4) and Catastrophe /Famine (IPC/CH Phase 5) are considered to be in need of urgent food, nutrition, and livelihood support. In countries in which the IPC/CH classification systems are not used, the report calls upon IPC-compatible analyses prepared by FEWS Net, Vulnerability Assessment Committees (VAC), Food Security Cluster (FSC) reports, Humanitarian Needs Overviews (HNO), or the WFP’s Food Security Assessments. The 2020 GRFC looked at the number of acutely food-insecure people in 2019; the mid-year update provides a look at that number in the first eight months of 2020. The mid-year update draws on a range of sources to examine the connection between COVID-19 and food insecurity and also includes data from Togo for the first time. The mid-year report also provided updates on several countries experiencing the world’s worst food crises. 

In Ethiopia, around 8.5 million people, or 21 percent of the population surveyed, experienced “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity between July and September 2020. Over 1 million of these were in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) food insecurity. The main drivers of food insecurity in the country have been crop damage caused by an infestation of desert locusts, below-average rainfall in some areas, flooding in other areas, displacement of populations due to conflict and climate events, and COVID-19-related income loss and rising food prices. 

Between 2.5 and 3 million people in Uganda faced “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity between May and August. Urban populations have experienced employment and income loss due to COVID-19, and refugee populations have been faced with reduced opportunities to engage in casual labor. In addition, staple food prices have increased in some regions, diminishing households’ purchasing power. Other drivers of Uganda’s food insecurity include localized flooding, livestock diseases, and localized conflict such as cattle raids.  

In Kenya, six percent of the population surveyed (about 850,600 people) is expected to experience “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity from October through December, mostly in the country’s arid and semi-arid regions. The impacts of COVID-19, widespread flooding, desert locust infestation and related crop damage, and conflict have all played a role in continuing food insecurity in the country. 

An estimated 2.6 million Malawians will face acute food insecurity from October 2020 through the March 2021 lean period; this is about 15 percent of the country’s population. Most of this food insecurity will occur in the rural south, which has experienced both flooding and abnormal dry spells that resulted in a production shortfall this year. The urban population in several cities are also facing acute food insecurity due to employment loss, reduced remittances, and lower incomes, all a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Over 5.7 million people are facing “crisis-level or higher” food insecurity in northeastern Nigeria alone; the mid-year update estimates as many as 8.7 million people in acute food insecurity in the country’s 16 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory between June and August. These numbers show an astounding 73 percent increase in acute food insecurity from the 2019 lean season. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing conditions stemming from conflict, economic shock, and extreme weather events. 

Guatemala saw between 2 and 2.5 million people in urgent need of food assistance between July and September. COVID-19 related restrictions have prevented many populations from engaging in their traditional employment, and the loss of income has been further exacerbated by rising food prices. 

In Honduras, the June – August lean season saw 1.6 million people in acute food insecurity, a total of 32 percent of the surveyed population. This is an increase of 71 percent from November 2019. Much of the surveyed population depends on subsistence farming, coffee production, tourism, or remittances for their income – all of which have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. 

The report’s authors point out that COVID-19 made additional data collection difficult or even impossible in some cases. Thus, countries in addition to the 27 covered in the mid-year update are also experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity. In addition, data for a portion of the 27 countries covered in the update were difficult to compare year-to-year due to differences in geographical coverage, percentage of population surveyed, changes in demographics surveyed, and changes in data sources or methodologies. 

Sara Gustafson is a freelance writer.