FAO Liaison Office in New York

Op-ed by the President of the UN General Assembly


Preventing a pandemic-induced food emergency

by Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the United Nations General Assembly

Despite successful harvests this past season, two billion people did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus.  Indeed, hunger has been on the rise globally for the past four years.

Throughout its 74th session, the General Assembly prioritized hunger and poverty issues with a view to alleviating suffering, empowering farmers and food producers, and building resilient food systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, putting immense strain on tenuous systems; and plunging those in the most precarious contexts deeper into poverty and hunger.

In many places, travel restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19 has reduced access to markets; and the purchasing power of millions of people has been decimated as a result of an exponential increase in unemployment rates.  Moreover, school closures have disturbed the main source of nutrition for over 370 million children around the world.

Those suffering from hunger are at greater risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms as a result of associated health conditions, such as malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, which compromise the immune system. Compounding this is the fact that those who are hungry are often trapped in poverty and do not have access to health services, water and sanitation facilities, or indeed the space to quarantine or practice social distancing.

In both our rapid response to the pandemic, and our long-term planning, it is imperative that we link food security to health interventions and investment in infrastructure. We must expand social protection measures and prioritize food assistance programmes for the most vulnerable. If we are to prevent a pandemic-induced food crisis we must ensure that everyone, everywhere, has consistent access to nutritious food.

Food supply chains must adjust to ensure access at all points in line with mobility restrictions, whilst ensuring the safety of all stakeholders. Indeed, minimizing disruption to the food supply chain will limit the risk of an increase in food waste, already standing at 33%.

Individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa and countries which rely almost exclusively on imports, such as the Small Island Developing States, face a disproportionate risk; as do those in  commodity-exporting States and Least Developed Countries. Furthermore, many farmers and herdsmen already face challenges such as desertification, land degradation, drought, and locust invasions.

We cannot regress to the 2008 food price crisis which pushed 105 million people below the poverty line as a result of trade insulation and exorbitant price hikes in small countries dependent on imports. International cooperation and coordination are critical to promoting stability in food markets and preventing sudden price shocks.

I commend Member States for their responses at the national level, and their continued support to the UN system to ensure that we leave no one behind. Indeed, at a recent extraordinary high-level meeting of the Group of Friends of Food Security and Nutrition, Member States committed to galvanizing multilateral action towards implementing Sustainable Development Goal 2: “Zero Hunger” at this time of crisis.

Moving forward, I encourage all Member States to leverage South-South and Triangular Cooperation in order to strengthen agricultural systems. This was a key recommendation from the interactive dialogue on Zero Hunger held by the General Assembly in February.

Throughout this discussion, participants urged policy makers to focus on strengthening governance, fostering local participation, supporting smallholder and women farmers, and empowering family farmers through education and access to e-commerce platforms. We must pay heed to these voices today.

In order to evade famine and widespread hunger, we must invest in inclusive, resilient food systems which reflect our new reality. As we contend with the COVID-19 pandemic we must re-commit to ending hunger. To fail to do so, would be to fail the people we serve.