The world is hurtling toward an unprecedented hunger crisis.
As many as 132 million more people than previously projected could go hungry in 2020, and this year’s gain may be more than triple any increase this century. The pandemic is upending food supply chains, crippling economies and eroding consumer purchasing power. Some projections show that by the end of the year, COVID-19 will cause more people to die each day from hunger than from virus infections.
What makes the situation unmatched: The massive spike is happening at a time of enormous global food surpluses. And it’s happening in every part of the world, with new levels of food insecurity forecast for countries that used to have relative stability.
In Queens, New York, the lines snaking around a food bank are eight hours long as people wait for a box of supplies that might last them a week, while farmers in California are plowing over lettuce and fruit is rotting on trees in Washington. In Uganda, bananas and tomatoes are piling up in open-air markets, and even nearly give-away prices aren’t low enough for out-of-work buyers. Supplies of rice and meat were left floating at ports earlier this year after logistical jams in the Philippines, China and Nigeria. And in South America, Venezuela is teetering on the brink of famine.
“We’ll see the scars of this crisis for generations,” said Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University. “In 2120, we’ll still be talking about this crisis.”
COVID-19 has exposed some of the world’s deepest inequalities. It’s also a determining force in who gets to eat and who doesn’t, underscoring global social divides as the richest keep enjoying a breakneck pace of wealth accumulation. Millions of people have been thrown out of work and don’t have enough money to feed their families, despite the trillions in government stimulus that’s helped send global equities to all-time highs.
On top of the economic malaise, lockdowns and broken supply chains have also created a serious problem for food distribution. The sudden shift away from restaurant eating, which in places like the U.S. used to account for more than half of dining, means farmers have been dumping milk and smashing eggs, with no easy means to redirect their production to either grocery stores or those in need.
Don Cameron of Terranova Ranch in California took a hit of about $55,000 this year on his cabbage crop. Almost half the loss – $24,000 – came because Cameron decided to donate to local food banks after demand from his usual customers dried up. He had to pay for the labor needed to do the harvesting and truck loading. He even needed to cover the cost of some bins and pallets to get supplies moved. It would’ve been a lot cheaper to just let the crops rot in the field.
“We know other parts of the country need what we have here. But the infrastructure has not been set up, as far as I’m aware, to allow that. There are times when there is food available and it’s because of logistics that it doesn’t find a home,” said Cameron, who still ended up destroying about 50,000 tons of the crop since nearby food banks “can only take so much cabbage.”
Initial United Nations forecasts show that in a worst-case scenario, about a tenth of the world’s population won’t have enough to eat this year. The impact will go beyond just hunger as millions more are also likely to experience other forms of food insecurity, including not being able to afford healthy diets, which can lead to malnutrition and obesity.