Tackling the hunger challenge

Tackling the hunger challenge

The economic and health impacts of the extended Covid-19 outbreak are most worrisome for communities in countries across Asia. Lockdowns and economic recession are expected to lead to a major loss of income among the working poor and low-income families.

The loss of tourism receipts will damage countries that rely heavily on the sector and are struggling to survive a sharp fall of arrivals and massive job losses. Overseas remittances will also drop sharply; this will hurt countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia.

While severe health risks are only part of the outbreak, lockdowns are hampering people from planting and harvesting crops. That means less income for desperately hungry people to buy food and less food available, at higher prices. As well, transport restrictions and border shutdowns jeopardise fresh food supply chains and may result in increased levels of food loss and waste.

At the same time, school closures have impeded learning for hundreds of millions of young people, and physical classes in many countries are still not ready to resume. As a result, nearly 370 million children are missing out on nutritious school meals and don't get the nutrition they need for building immunity required to fight the pandemic.

All of those factors are worsening another chronic global problem -- hunger, which could become the next big impact of the pandemic.

Almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019 -- up by 10 million from 2018, and roughly 60 million in five years, according to the latest edition of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, released last week by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Asia remains home to the greatest number of undernourished people (381 million), followed by Africa (250 million), and Latin America and the Caribbean (48 million).

While it is too soon to assess the full impact of lockdowns and other virus-containment measures, the report estimates that between 83 million and 132 million more people may go hungry in 2020 as a result of the recession triggered by Covid-19.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, addressing the impact of Covid-19 on hunger and nutrition would require an extra US$10 billion in government spending this year.

The report presents evidence that a healthy diet costs far more than $1.90 a day, the international poverty threshold. "Overcoming hunger and malnutrition in all its forms including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity, is about more than securing enough food to survive: what people eat -- and especially what children eat -- must also be nutritious.

"Yet a key obstacle is the high cost of nutritious foods and the low affordability of healthy diets for vast numbers of families."

Last year, about 2 billion people lacked regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. Healthy diets rich in fruit, vegetables and protein are unaffordable to more than 3 billion people. Poor diets are also causing trillions of dollars in health and environmental costs.

Multinational food companies have already cautioned that the number of people facing chronic hunger could double to more than 1.6 billion as a result of the pandemic. Economists have warned that developed nations will increase the threat of damaging recurrences of the virus in their own countries if they fail to fund measures in the poor world.

To address these risks, countries need to meet the immediate food needs of their vulnerable populations with governments investing more in social protection programmes, keeping the global food trade going along with gearing up the domestic supply chain.

Support should be provided to smallholder farmers to strengthen their ability to increase food production. Innovations from businesses are also helpful to enable cheaper and more accessible healthy diets.

For Southeast Asia, a major global food supplier, it's high time for stakeholders across the value chain from farm to fork to work together, not only to feed the growing global population but also to better ensure a safe and nutritious food supply.

According to CropLife Asia, part of a global non-profit supported by agrochemical companies among others, farmers continue to rely on crop-protection products to produce more food on less land and raise productivity. Without crop-protection products, 40% of global rice and maize harvests could be lost every year and losses for fruits and vegetables could be as high as 50-90%, the group says.

With closer collaboration and joint efforts, Asean can not only help the world tackle the troubling trend of pandemic-induced hunger but can also address food security in the longer term.


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