Plate-Wise •  8/21/2020

Rethinking Our Superheroes

Written By May Meere 
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A Plate With Illustrated Food Outlines

The statistics I saw from the U.N. World Food Programme recently were quite shocking. About 265 million people — or 3% of the world’s population — are facing starvation because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During this lockdown period, it is hard to not get a bit introspective. Remember when you could pop to the shops on a whim, catch up with friends at a restaurant or grab a quick drink with colleagues after work? Now, more and more of us are in various stages of lockdown easing measures. It feels like a different world.

I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by how precarious that easy life actually was, particularly when it comes to our food security. The reality is that even in developed countries, our food supply chain is much more fragile than we may realize.

According to the World Food Programme executive director, who had earlier warned the U.N. Security Council of a looming hunger pandemic, the coronavirus fuels hunger by disrupting global and national economies. The worst damage will be felt in the low-income countries least equipped to deal with the fallout from the pandemic.

A New Kind of Essential Worker Is Emerging

I’m currently a long way from home. I was midair when Singapore closed its borders and arrived in France, where I’m working remotely, only a few days before it went into lockdown too. Airlines are yet to resume normal routes with flights still canceled and travel restrictions to outside of Europe are still in place, so I guess I’m going to be here for a while more.

It goes without saying that stay-at-home measures and border closures have a striking impact on the food supply chain and the lives of those who are part of it. Here in France, at the end of March, farmers were estimating a shortage of around 200,000 seasonal workers to pick crops that need to be harvested, well... like right now ....

Without these extra workers, the prospect of wasted crops prompted French Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume to call on a “shadow army” of those currently unable to work — waiters, hairdressers — to help on the farms instead. But many farms are still reporting a shortfall of laborers or are skeptical of taking on unskilled and inexperienced workers.

We will have to wait to see what the true impact of this disruption may be. While COVID-19 has rightfully thrust health care workers into the spotlight, a new kind of essential worker has emerged.

While France’s agricultural sector is large enough for the government to call upon consumers to eat more local produce, Singapore, where I normally live, imports over 90% of food supplies and is having to navigate challenges caused by border restrictions and disruption to imports.

Plans to increase the amount of food produced locally to around 30% cannot be realized overnight. The global nature of the pandemic also means that despite having diversified the range of countries from which Singapore imports food, it is not entirely insulated because the issue is so widespread.

Wherever you look around the world, planes are still grounded, there is a shortage of shipping containers, there are fewer workers to process shipments on the docks, and lorries are unable to bring produce across borders. Every aspect of the supply chain is at risk.

It Is Sobering to Realise Just How Fragile This All Is

Ultimately, if crops can’t be sown, harvested, packed, shipped or delivered, it won’t take long before the gaps on our shelves are a result of a real lack of produce — as opposed to panic buying and stockpiling.

Being suddenly faced with a shortage — or total absence — of produce we might previously have taken for granted is an uncomfortable feeling, not least because many of us in the developed world have never experienced anything like it. As governments scramble to prevent the spread of the virus, it is a sad inevitability that many of the people who will be most harshly impacted are those who are already the most exposed.

For Many, a Lack of Access to Food Is Already the Norm

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, around 821 million people around the world are chronically hungry to the extent that they are unable to live normal lives. And now in this new COVID-19 world, the food security outlook is grim for many. As 821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, a further 135 million people are facing crisis levels of hunger or worse.

That means 135 million people on Earth are marching toward the brink of starvation. But now the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to COVID-19, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. That’s a total of 265 million people.

Consider Yemen — already in the middle of a humanitarian crisis due to conflict and with millions pushed to the brink of starvation, the sweeping COVID-19 pandemic is striking fear into an already extremely vulnerable population. Staying at home means dying from hunger; going out means dying from the disease.

For Ethiopia, another country with high levels of acute food insecurity, the locust plague in East Africa could not have come at a worse time with the pandemic perpetuating an already downward spiral for millions.

A further challenge is the inherent delay present in the food supply chain. It’s difficult to adapt quickly — crops take time to cultivate, and livestock breeding cannot be suddenly accelerated or slowed down to respond to changing demand.

The news is full of stories of farmers feeding cattle with strawberries because otherwise they will just have to be dumped, or spring lambs given a reprieve as Easter celebrations were canceled. Livestock farmers face a double hit with revenue plummeting as demand evaporates, alongside the additional, unexpected cost of feeding animals that remain in the barn instead of gracing the table. 

From a COVID-19 Pandemic to a Hunger Pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a harsh light on inherent weaknesses within our global food supply chain and reconfirmed the vulnerabilities facing the many suffering from food insecurity. It is a timely reminder that we need to double down on ending hunger, one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and demonstrates the complex challenges that need to be urgently addressed if we are 

to sustainably meet the food needs of 10 billion people by 2050 — the current projection given population growth.

What Can Policymakers and the Private Sector Do to Protect Farmers, Supply Chain and Future Shocks?

Findings in the recent Global Food Security Index reveal that for countries that rely on imports, measures to improve the diversity of import streams and increase the amount of food produced domestically can help to create greater food security. For those reliant on a manual workforce, larger questions will need to be asked about how to create and process more food with fewer resources. Innovative technology and insightful data that ultimately help farmers to do more with less will be key. These are lofty ideals and will require tremendous energy to mobilize.

What Can We Do? Waste Less

According to a recent PLOS One study, around one-third of all food available for human consumption is wasted. This clearly impacts the well-being of individuals in terms of available nutrition, but it also represents a significant carbon footprint. If we can improve transportation and harvesting practices, we can help to ensure that the food we have produced goes further and protect both the planet and our fellow inhabitants.

Thankful for Our Essential Workers — Our Farmers

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest in a long list of potential threats to global food security. If we can be kinder to our farmers involved in the production of our food, if governments can implement supportive policies, and if the availability of technology and data can help our farmers to make more timely and informed decisions, we can fortify the supply chain.

It’s difficult to know exactly how this is all going to pan out. But if we can clearly see our vulnerabilities and are serious about addressing them, then we can strengthen the global food supply chain, improve food security, and get one step closer to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of ending hunger and reducing inequalities for those most vulnerable and left behind by our societies.

There’s no doubt feeding the world takes the effort of superheroes. I’m not sure about you, but I’m grateful every day for those who work to feed us. They are among my superheroes!