The COVID-19 pandemic is leading to a rise in global hunger, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“There is a significant increase in chronic undernourishment,” Maximo Torero, Chief Economist and Assistant Director General for Economic and Social Development for the FAO tells Food Tank.
The FAO found that approximately 690 million people suffered from hunger in 2019. And while official 2020 food insecurity figures are forthcoming, they estimate that conditions are worsening, with roughly 152 million people now experiencing chronic undernourishment.
Some worry that increasing global food prices is driving the current hunger crisis, but Torero doesn’t believe this is the case. Rather, he tells Food Tank, “it’s a problem of inequalities that are being exacerbated.”
Torero says that lengthy, government-imposed lockdowns resulted in the loss of income for millions of workers in informal sectors, the majority of whom are middle-class. In Latin America, for example—where more than 54 percent of workers rely on the informal economy—many are depleting their savings and slipping into poverty. This, he argues, will have a significant impact on food insecurity.
Torero also predicts an impending health crisis. “We are focused on COVID-19, but we forgot about other vaccinations,” he says. As the pandemic continues, he fears that countries will lose decades of progress to prevent the spread of other communicable diseases.
Lapses in education caused by the pandemic will have long-term effects on social inequities as well. Torero says that as students return to the classroom, many young people, especially girls, will not re-enroll in school.
“You have the three worst things happening at the same time,” Torero tells Food Tank.
Although Torero believes it is still possible to change course and reduce hunger rates, governments must take immediate action. Data will be essential to identify emerging hunger hotspots, he says. This will enable policymakers to provide appropriate and targeted support.
Torero also argues for formalizing sectors in rural and peri-urban areas, which would allow more workers consistent access to markets. “Formalization does not necessarily mean we charge you taxes,” Teroro tells Food Tank. “Formalization means you become a part of the system.”
The approaching U.N. Food Systems Summit may offer an opportunity to identify solutions that bring the world closer to ending food insecurity. But, he warns, agreeing on a common goal is key. “We need to focus and we need to focus on the reduction of hunger.”
Listen to the full conversation with Torero below.