The United Nations have warned governments of an upcoming global food crisis resulting from the coronavirus disruptions. Food prices will increase, causing financial difficulties, poverty and endangering people’s access to safe, nutritious food. It is predicted to be worse than the massive food price spikes seen in 2008. In 2008, food prices rapidly increased, and staple foods such as wheat and rice doubled in cost. The 2008 price spike was due to rising oil prices and an increase in biofuel demand, but today’s catalyst is COVID-19.
Economic downturns have seen many people put out of work, which puts them more at risk of being unable to afford staple foods, even before the predicted price spike. In other countries globally, people who rely on the international market to sell their products are being struck by the fluctuations in demand that COVID-19 has caused. Extreme conditions stemming from climate change continue to ravage farmland, causing unpredictable flash floods and swarms of locusts. International transport and access to food have been impacted by the current circumstances. The problems extend into the picking and packaging of food in the UK, where migrant workers who normally accept agricultural seasonal work have not been able to travel due to disease control restrictions.
Many children are at risk of nutritional deficiencies. While this is especially true in poorer parts of the world, it is also true in the UK where 1.3 million children from low-income households claimed free school meals in 2019. Due to school closures, many of these children are at risk. While alternative systems like providing supermarket vouchers and food parcels have been put in place, the system has suffered many teething problems. Some parents have reported being unable to log in and that the downloaded vouchers don’t always work. Childhood nutrition is vital to prevent stunted growth, scurvy, blindness and lifelong suffering.
Early on in food production, there have been vast gluts of produce meant for restaurants and pubs that have been wasted due to their mandated closing to prevent the rising death toll of coronavirus. The entire supply chain for the foodservice industry has buckled, and farmers are experiencing a glut of unsaleable produce that is leading to a massive amount of waste. Requirements for domestic and commercial produce are fundamentally different, which means that while supermarket shelves are empty and food banks are overstretched, the mass wastage is still taking place. For example, while mince meat is regularly purchased at supermarkets for a midweek meal, relatively few people purchase the steaks and prime cuts that they enjoy at a nice restaurant. Floury potatoes that are suitable for deep fat frying in fast food establishments are not well received in supermarkets where other varieties are available.
“When this situation ends, we should revisit how we relate to farmers. They are so vital. Much like health workers, they have not always been treated with the respect that they deserve.” Dr David Nabarro, Imperial's Chair of Global Health and World Health Organisation Special Envoy on COVID-19
Our current food system has many issues surrounding sustainability, and scientists have been predicting food shortages for a while. The current system of intensified monoculture cropping is fragile and unstable, vulnerable to complete annihilation by plant parasites and to infecting human consumers with parasites such as hookworm, which thrive in the soil. Meat production is also problematic, as the cramped and inhumane conditions that many of our farm animals are kept in are ideal breeding grounds for diseases to replicate and mutate. A report in the Nature Sustainability cites agriculture as the cause for 25% of all infectious diseases in humans.
There is an intense need to “build back better” and make substantial amendments to the current food system to be sustainable, globally accessible and resilient to future challenges. Coronavirus may cause a world food crisis. It presents indisputable evidence that the current system isn’t resilient enough. However, this may drive future change during recovery to a system that is better than it was before. This may include more funding for community allotment programmes and investment into hydroponic technology.
“With this restart, a window of hope and opportunity opens… an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages and shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient” Christiana Figueres, UN Climate Chief.
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