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Pandemic Will Drive Global Famine Without Urgent Food System Reform


The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the risk of famine in the world’s poorest countries as it bankrupts small-hold farmers, breaks supply chains, and stymies efforts to build climate resilience, reports Climate Home News. If the worst of the disaster is to be averted, humanitarian systems need to change the way support is delivered, and “think differently” about everything from climate finance to food production.

In countries like Bangladesh, Timor-Leste, and Lesotho, efforts to improve extreme weather resilience are being hampered by pandemic-driven travel restrictions, while “patchy” Internet access prevents even virtual meetings, Climate Home explains. And as cyclone season looms on the Indian subcontinent, global aid workers are facing an unprecedented layering of crises.

“There has not been a moment in time when the world is faced with so many challenges,” said Sonam Wangdi, chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) negotiating bloc, during a recent online meeting. “Each of these incidents pushes us back many times more than the rest of the world.”

Getting funding to help combat these crises, however, is a “cumbersome” process in need of serious renovation, writes Climate Home. What is required, said Wangdi, is a “whole-society approach that incorporates climate action and sustainable development at the national and local level.” Last September, the 47 countries of the LDC committed to achieving “climate-resilient development pathways by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, providing they received the necessary support.” Full implementation of such climate action would require US$97 billion immediately from donor countries, and up to US$500 billion by 2050. Currently, LDCs receive about 0.6% of that funding. 

Also being revealed in the pandemic fallout: a lack of resiliency in global food systems. Climate Home reports that small-hold farmers in India and Bangladesh are reeling from being hit by major cyclones right on the tail of the first wave of COVID-19—and with markets locked down, the farmers are unable to sell even what crops survived. 

“Food is being wasted, as vegetables and grains are rotting unharvested in fields, livestock are being killed and buried, and milk is being thrown away,” writes Teresa Anderson, climate policy coordinator for ActionAid International. Facing bankruptcy, many farmers cannot afford the seeds to plant for next season. That’s leading to a vicious feedback loop in which agribusiness operations gobble up remaining smallholders as they fail, thereby “concentrating yet more wealth and land in fewer hands, and increasing the food system’s contribution and vulnerability to climate change.”

Together, these factors are leading us toward a global hunger crisis. To avoid famines of “biblical proportions,” countries must “seize this moment to fix our broken food system,” writes Anderson. That means moving away from “big, industrialized agribusiness” toward “agroecological practices that work with nature instead of against it, that are sustainable and climate resilient, and that safeguard the livelihoods of the people who grow our food.”

Short-term solutions include income support for farmers, cash and food transfers, school meals, and “public procurement policies that support smallholder farmers.” In the long term, however, larger reform is needed. 

“COVID-19 has witnessed a growing trend of smallholders selling directly to local customers, as people realize that short supply chains are less likely to be interrupted,” writes Anderson. “This approach can help food systems be more resilient to pandemics and better for the climate, while enabling farmers and local economies to thrive.”