With the global health crisis flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, the world is also facing the specter of mass starvation flowing from a combination of ongoing armed conflicts, weather events, export restraints on food and potential disruptions in food supply. Export restraints and disruptions in food supply are increasing based on actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governments of the world are understandably focused on the health pandemic where known deaths since December are approaching 200,000 with confirmed cases over 2.5 million and continuing to increase. To date Europe and the United States and a few other countries account for the vast majority of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19, though nearly all countries have some cases and many other countries could see rapidly growing cases in the weeks and months ahead.
In contrast, the number of people in the world facing acute hunger and possible starvation is staggering with death projections for 2020 in key months of likely shortage as high as 300,000/day or more without concerted efforts to prevent! On April 21, David Beasley, the UN World Food Programme Executive Director made a virtual presentation to the UN Security Council. https://www.wfp.org/news/wfp-chief-warns-hunger-pandemic-covid-19-spreads-statement-un-security-council. His statement is reproduced below.
“Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but I’d like to lay out for you very clearly what the world is facing at this very moment. At the same time while dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger
“In my conversations with world leaders over the past many months, before the Coronavirus even became an issue, I was saying that 2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for a number of reasons.
“Such as the wars in Syria and Yemen. The deepening crises in places like South Sudan and, as Jan Egeland will no doubt set out, Burkina Faso and the Central Sahel region. The desert locust swarms in Africa, as Director General Qu highlighted in his remarks. And more frequent natural disasters and changing weather patterns. The economic crisis in Lebanon affecting millions of Syrian refugees. DRC, Sudan, Ethiopia. And the list goes on. We’re already facing a perfect storm.
“So today, with COVID-19, I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.
“This sounds truly shocking but let me give you the numbers: 821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, chronically hungry, and as the new Global Report on Food Crises published today shows, there are a further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse. That means 135 million people on earth are marching towards the brink of starvation. But now the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the Coronavirus, 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.
“On any given day now, WFP offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people, up from about 80 million just a few years ago. This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive. If we can’t reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period. This does not include the increase of starvation due to COVID-19.
“In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation. In many places, this human suffering is the heavy price of conflict.
“At WFP, we are proud that this Council made the historic decision to pass Resolution 2417 in May 2018. It was amazing to see the council come together. Now we have to live up to our pledge to protect the most vulnerable and act immediately to save lives.
“But this is only in my opinion only the first part of the strategy needed to protect conflict-riven countries from a hunger pandemic caused by the Coronavirus. There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.
“This is why I am talking about a hunger pandemic. It is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat this disease, and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects.”
“Lockdowns and economic recession are expected to lead to a major loss of income among the working poor. Overseas remittances will also drop sharply – this will hurt countries such as Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia just a name a couple. The loss of tourism receipts will damage countries such as Ethiopia, where it accounts for 47% of total exports. The collapsing oil prices in lower-income countries like South Sudan will have an impact significantly, where oil accounts for 98.8% of total exports. And, of course, when donor countries’ revenues are down, how much impact will this have on life saving foreign aid.
“The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 are most worrisome for communities in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, because the virus threatens further damage to the lives and livelihoods of people already put at risk by conflict.
“WFP and our partners are going all-out to help them we’ll do everything we possibly can. For example, we know that children are particularly vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition, so we are prioritizing assistance to them.
“Right now, as you may now 1.6 billion children and young people are currently out of school due to lockdown closures. Nearly 370 million children are missing out on nutritious school meals – you can only imagine when children don’t get the nutrition they need their immunity goes down. Where nutritious school meals have been suspended by school closures, we are working to replace them with take-home rations, wherever possible.
“As you know, WFP is the logistics backbone for the humanitarian world and even more so now for the global effort to beat this pandemic. We have delivered millions upon millions of personal protective equipment, testing kits and face masks to 78 countries on behalf of the World Health Organization. We are also running humanitarian air services to get frontline health professionals doctors, nurses, and humanitarian staff into countries that need help, especially while passenger air industry is basically about shut down.
“But we need to do so much more, and I urge this Council to lead the way. First and foremost, we need peace. As the Secretary-General recently said very clearly, a global ceasefire is essential.
“Second, we need all parties involved in conflicts to give us swift and unimpeded humanitarian access to all vulnerable communities, so they can get the assistance to them that they need, regardless of who they are or where they are. We also need in a very general sense humanitarian goods and commercial trade to continue flowing across borders, because they are the lifeline of global food systems as well as the global economy. Supply chains have to keep moving if we are going to overcome this pandemic and get food from where it is produced to where it is needed. It also means resisting the temptation to introduce export bans or import subsidies, which can lead to price hikes and almost always backfire.
“WFP is working hand in glove with governments to build and strengthen national safety nets. This is critical right now to ensure fair access to assistance and help maintain peace and prevent rising tensions among communities.
“Third, we need coordinated action to support life-saving humanitarian assistance. For example, WFP is implementing plans to preposition three months’ worth of food and cash to serve country operations identified as priorities. We are asking donors to accelerate the (US) $1.9 billion in funding that has already been pledged, so we can build stockpiles and create these life-saving buffers, and protect the most vulnerable from the effects of supply chain disruptions, commodity shortages, economic damage and lockdowns. You understand exactly what I’m talking about.
“We are also requesting a further USD350 million to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to keep humanitarian supply chains moving around the world. They will also provide field hospitals and medical evacuations to the frontline humanitarian and health workers, as needed and strategically.
“Excellencies, two years ago the Security Council took a landmark step when it recognized, and condemned, the devastating human toll of conflict paid in poverty and hunger. Resolution 2417 also highlighted the need for early warning systems, and today I am here to raise that alarm.
“There are no famines yet. But I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.
“The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies. The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely – and let’s act fast. I do believe that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programs necessary to make certain the COVID-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe. So Mr. President, thank you, thank you very much.
Emphasis added. See also https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1062272.
The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises mentioned in Mr. Beasley’s statement can be found here and is embedded below. https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000114546/download/?_ga=2.200353390.1965067900.1587648297-1190105299.1587648297.GRFC_2020_ONLINE_200420
Fifty-six countries or territories are listed as at various levels of concern for hunger in 2019 and potentially for 2020 and are summarized on pages 214-215 of the report. Eleven of the fifty-six countries or territories are categorized as at a phase 4 level (emergency) for the country as a whole or for particular parts. These include Afghanistan, Angola, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Twenty-one others are categorized as phase 3 (crisis). These include Burkino Faso, Cameron, Chad, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Uganada, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Eight countries or territories were ranked phase 2 (stressed). These included Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya and Nicaragua. Two countries or territories were listed as phase 1 (minimal)(Burundi and Rwanda). The remaining fourteen countries or territories had not been given a specific phase, some because the problem related to the presence of large numbers of refugees and what might happen during the year; for others the descriptions of the hunger challenges would suggest serious problems. These countries or territories include Bangladesh, Colombia, Djibouti, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Myanmar, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
While the bulk of the concerns raised in the report go to ongoing conflicts and weather problems, trade restrictions are potentially important contributors. As reviewed in an earlier post, a number of countries have imposed export restraints on certain agricultural goods. With the exception of Myanmar and Ukraine who are listed in the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, the other countries reviewed in my earlier post are not included in the report. These countries include Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonsia and Cambodia. The earlier post is linked below.
G20 Agriculture Ministers Communique
Following a virtual meeting on April 21, G20 Agriculture Ministers released a Ministerial Statement that reaffirmed “the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products and inputs essential for agircultural and food production”. The Statement can be found here. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/G20_Agriculture%20Ministers%20Meeting_Statement_EN.pdf. The statement covers a fair amount of ground but doesn’t prohibit export restraints per se in agriculture but rather repeats the limitations (reflecting existing WTO flexibilities) that trade ministers articulated for medical supplies – any restraints should be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. The full statement is reproduced below.
“We, the G20 Agriculture Ministers, are deeply saddened by the devastating human losses and suffering caused by the spread of COVID-19. We commit to cooperating closely and taking concrete actions to safeguard global food security and nutrition.
‘We reaffirm the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products, and inputs essential for agricultural and food production across borders in line with our Leaders’ Statement on COVID-19 of March 26, 2020. We acknowledge the challenges of minimizing the risk of COVID-19 while keeping food supply chains functioning. We will continue to work to ensure the health, safety, welfare, and mobility of workers in agriculture and throughout the food supply chain.
“We will guard against any unjustified restrictive measures that could lead to excessive food price volatility in international markets and threaten the food security and nutrition of large proportions of the world population, especially the most vulnerable living in environments of low food security. We agree that emergency measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic must be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary, and that they do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global food supply chains, and are consistent with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. We recognise the importance of transparency and commend the Trade and Investment Ministers’ commitment to notify the WTO of any trade-related measures taken, including those related to agriculture and essential foodstuffs. We reaffirm our agreement not to impose export restrictions or extraordinary taxes on food and agricultural products purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian agencies.
“We emphasize the work of the G20 Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) and take note of AMIS’ assessment that at present global food supplies are adequate and food markets remain well balanced. As members, we commit and call on other members to continue providing timely and reliable information on global food market fundamentals to help markets, countries, and consumers make informed choices. Where appropriate, we will coordinate policy responses, supported by the AMIS Global Food Market Information Group and the AMIS Rapid Response Forum. We call for continued support for AMIS, including through voluntary financial contributions.
“We will work together to help ensure that sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food continues to be available and accessible to all people, including the poorest, the most vulnerable, and displaced people in a timely, safe, and organized manner, consistent with national requirements. Acknowledging the critical role of the private sector in food systems, we call for enhanced cooperation between the public and private sectors to help mobilize rapid and innovative responses to impacts of this pandemic on the agriculture and food sectors.
“Under the current challenging circumstances, we stress the importance of avoiding food losses and waste caused by disruptions throughout food supply chains, which could exacerbate food insecurity and nutrition risks and economic loss. We stress the need to strengthen the sustainability and resilience of food systems globally, including to future shocks from disease and pest outbreaks, and to the global challenges that drive these shocks. In line with the One Health approach, we call for strengthened mechanisms for monitoring, early warning, preparedness, prevention, detection, response, and control of zoonotic diseases, and developing science-based international guidelines on stricter safety and hygienic measures for zoonosis control.
“We deeply thank farmers and workers, and small, medium and large scale agri-food businesses for their continuous efforts to ensure our food supply. We will intensify our efforts, in line with WTO rules and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to support them to sustain their activities and livelihoods during the crisis and to assist their recovery afterwards. Our efforts will support rural communities, especially small-scale farmers and family farms, to be more economically prosperous, resilient and sustainable, and to have improved food security and nutrition, giving special attention to the needs of developing and low-income countries.
We will continue our cooperation with relevant international organizations and within their mandates work to: reinforce international cooperation; identify additional actions to alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition; share best practices and lessons learned, such as addressing barriers to supply chains; promote evidence and science-based information and combat misinformation; provide capacity building and technical assistance; and promote research, responsible investments, innovations and reforms that will improve the sustainability and resilience of agriculture and food systems. This work could build on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) evolving response to COVID-19, the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD’s) evolving efforts to support a strong recovery from the effects of COVID-19, policy monitoring and analysis by the OECD, and other relevant initiatives, such as the preparation for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.
“We will continue our close cooperation and as necessary update our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and our broader G20 agriculture and food agenda. We stand ready to reconvene as required.” (Emphasis added)
The virtual meeting of G20 Agriculture Ministers included information received from the various UN organizations with expertise. See http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1272058/icode/
The Ministerial Statement is helpful in encouraging nations to maintain open markets, to not tax humanitarian food aid and to provide transparency in actions taken. But the Ministerial Statement does not commit the G20 members to avoid trade restrictions where such restrictions are temporary, targeted, transparent and proportionate. Based on actions taken by China and India during the 2007-2008 food crisis, it is not surprising that the G20 could not get hard commitments to avoid agriculture export restrictions from all G20 members.
As international organizations are serving as transparency fora and are encouraging joint action, it is not surprising that the Ministerial Statement was warmly received by the WTO as the statement supports transparency and WTO consistency of any actions taken.. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_21apr20_e.htm.
Communique from Various WTO Members
On July 22, twenty-three WTO Members (including the EU) submitted a joint statement to the WTO entitled RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH OPEN AND PREDICTABLE TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS, WT/GC/208, G/AG/30. The statement is embedded below.WTGC208
The statement cautions countries to avoid actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic that would adversely affect trade in agricultural goods. Absent from the joint statement are important Members who have in the past used or who at present are using export restraints on certain agricultural products including China and India (past export restraints) and Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia (current export restraints).
The joint statement has strong language on keeping markets open (including the negative effects of export restrictions on agriculture and agri-food products), avoiding waste, maintaining effective transport and logistical services, the importance of transparency in actions taken as well as food production and stocks. Nonetheless, because of existing WTO flexibilities provided to Members, the commitments made by the 23 Members include one which maintains the right to emergency measures that are “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, and not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains”.
The joint statement is certainly a positive step with eight specific commitments taken by WTO Members who account for 63% of global agricultural exports and 55% of global agricultural imports. Time will tell if the list of supporters of the commitments expands to other major Members.
Based on current and projected food supplies, there should be no crisis in food supplies to the world if there is collective efforts to keep markets open, provide food aid for populations experiencing severe shortages due to conflict, adverse weather events and any adverse effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what the UN and its World Food Programme seek (cease fires; access to people regardless of conflicts or sanctions) is not likely to happen based on actions by certain major countries. But keeping world markets open and food aid funded hopefully will occur. The consequences of failure in this regard would greatly exacerbate the health and economic costs already experienced from COVID-19.