Death by Covid-19 – or hunger?

The pandemic has shown up the faultlines in our global food system. Hazel Healy explains how millions were catapulted into hunger – and offers a glimpse of a more equitable path. With extra reporting by Mohamed Camara.

Death by Covid-19 – or hunger?

The pandemic has shown up the faultlines in our global food system. Hazel Healy explains how millions were catapulted into hunger – and offers a glimpse of a more equitable path. With extra reporting by Mohamed Camara.

Sierra Leone’s three-day lockdown was announced without warning. Mummy K, a fish seller from Freetown, watched in despair as her fish spoiled, the ice melting around it. ‘When I bought the fish, the price was high. So it was a big loss for me,’ she explains. Three months later, her colleagues are back out selling, but she is sat playing Ludo.

‘I don’t know how to get started up again,’ she says. Her income supported three others, including her four-year-old daughter, who are all now living off a dwindling stockpile of garri, a starchy cassava flour, saved for shocks like these. She’s watching her daughter carefully for any signs of sickness. ‘Children eat money,’ she sighs.

Mummy K is one of thousands of women who work in the informal food economy in Sierra Leone, one of 27 countries now facing crisis-levels of hunger, according to the UN’s World Food Programme. All over the world, the pandemic – and measures put in place to stop it – have been pushing hungry communities over the edge. For many, it stacks up with conflict, climate disruption and grinding poverty.

The warnings are dire. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that the number of people who experience ‘crisis-level’ hunger may rise to 270 million before the end of the year, an 82-per-cent increase since 2019. Already, The Lancet reports, 10,000 more children have died from virus-linked hunger every month since the pandemic began.

How has it got this bad in just a few months?

Last straw

Boys fish off the shores in Lake Victoria, which was closed to fishers for night-fishing during lockdown curfew in Kenya.

Covid-19 has revealed the fragility and deep power imbalances within our food system. Millions of people were already just one step away from hunger before the pandemic hit. This is not a problem of production – harvests have held up, and in any case our food system already produces enough to feed everyone. The problem is that since lockdown’s economic fallout, people cannot afford to buy food.

The poorest people already spend over 70 per cent of their income on food so a five-per-cent decline in the world economy, as predicted by the International Monetary Fund, immediately hits the most vulnerable hardest. In April, a survey by the Danish Refugee Council found only 3 per cent of Syrian families living in Jordan had a family member in work, compared to 65 per cent pre Covid-19. Almost 80 per cent said that they didn’t have enough food to get through the next three weeks.

A reduction in wages for migrant workers has rippled home. The World Bank estimates a 20-per-cent drop in remittances from abroad, equivalent to $100 billion, which is helping to drive a threefold increase in hunger in Latin America.

Nor is the rich world exempt. Data from the UK government shows that during the first few weeks of lockdown as many as 7.7 million adults shrank portions or missed meals. In the US, a record 54 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from.

As states scrambled to compost pigs’ remains, hunger in the US was rocketing

Hunger is not confined to poor city-dwellers. It is also stalking smallholder farmers – responsible for feeding 70 per cent of people in Latin America, South and East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – who have been paralysed by blanket lockdown measures. In Burkina Faso, where over half the country already goes hungry, Danssanin Lanizou told the Associated Press how her family was cut off from the market, causing their vegetable sales to collapse. Since she became too malnourished to breastfeed, her one-month old baby’s weight had halved in a month.

As less food reaches cities, prices are rising for consumers; at the same time, a glut of stranded food in rural areas is causing prices to decline for producers – a phenomenon that is playing out all over the world. With a 50-kilo bag of onions now fetching a dollar less at the market, Lanizou’s husband has been able to buy less seed for next year – ensuring the cycle of hunger continues.

Lockdown has also kept fishers from the seas. In Kenya, curfews have curtailed night-fishing of Nile Perch and Omena (or Dagaa), an affordable nutritious small fish for local consumption. In Tombo, south of Freetown, similar restrictions led to riots that left two people dead after just 15 of a 400-strong fleet of pirogues were allowed out to sea.

Supply-chain crunch

Amy Darnell rests after loading a truck for deliveries to food banks, as people queue for handouts of excess potatoes that would otherwise go to waste due to supply-chain blockages.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also caused havoc with the international supply chains. A quarter of all foodstuffs are now traded internationally – an interruption in one place can send shockwaves across the world.

The disruption has shown how countries in the Global South that rely on imports to feed their populations are at the mercy of market shocks and trade shifts. As the pandemic took hold, Chinese aquaculture – the source of nearly half the world’s fish – dried up overnight. When trade resumed, China diverted its farmed tilapia from Global South countries to more lucrative North American markets, which had opened up as restaurants closed and frozen fish became the order of the day.

China’s trade re-route meant that frozen fillets doubled in price in Nairobi, Kenya, which imported $23 million worth of Chinese tilapia in 2018. At the same time, Kenyan farmers lost access to lucrative EU export markets for their flowers, fruit and vegetables as airports closed and European cities went into lockdown.

As coronavirus spread, profits grew. In April, Nestlé paid out a record $8 billion to shareholders and executives – nearly double the food-emergency fund requested by WFP

By early August, sales were picking up again, but the Financial Times reports that Kenya’s horticultural sector – 80 per cent of which consists of smallholder farms – is still losing an estimated $1 million per day. One herb producer was forced to dump 60 million tonnes of basil, mint, rosemary and thyme when his Italian buyer ceased orders. Another farmer, Gerison Ndwiga, describes how he left more than seven tonnes of ripe haricot beans in the fields to rot. Coronavirus has left Kenya’s horticulture industry on the brink of collapse with 350,000 jobs at risk.

Even rich countries with a stable food supply have had their complacency shaken. While continuity held up in the UK, a recent paper in Nature Food puts this down to ‘contingent luck’. For 95 per cent of its food, Britain relies on supermarkets, which use ‘just-in-time’ supply chains powered by algorithms. But reliance on seasonal migrant labour and a ‘dangerous dependence’ on Spain and The Netherlands for its fresh vegetables leaves the UK vulnerable to deadlocks and blockages.

Our dysfunctional food system in numbers, graphs and charts. View the full facts spread

With half of Britain’s food imported, the prospect of a ‘no deal Brexit’, combined with climate impacts, means the food supply can no longer ‘be left to the market,’ the authors conclude. The UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee meanwhile has recently called for a Minister of Food Security for Britain.

The industrialized supply chain has been found wanting in other ways. Food- processing factories proved to be the perfect incubator for the virus and repeated outbreaks among workers led to closures of farms, packing plants and abattoirs. A tuna factory operated by the world’s biggest fish processor, Thai Union, was the source of 11 per cent of Ghana’s infections in April, while an outbreak in slaughterhouses forced the entire Gütersloh district of north-western Germany back into lockdown in June, incidentally lifting the lid on the cramped, dirty, living conditions of migrant workers there.

The meat industry stands out as the worst offender worldwide. In the US, powerful food corporations JBS, Cargill, Tyson and others secured an executive order from Donald Trump to keep their meat-packing plants open. Coronavirus rampaged through the production lines, killing at least 70 workers. The industry is so highly concentrated in the hands of so few companies – and so finely tuned for efficiency – that when Covid-19 caused 20 per cent of meat plants to close there was a backlog of animals ready for slaughter with nowhere to go.

The New York Times described how some farmers gassed and shot hundreds of thousands of pigs that had grown ‘too heavy to kill’ and discarded the carcasses; others tried – and failed – to sell hogs on Facebook and Craig’s List. Staff shortages also led to over two million birds being gassed by poultry giant Allen Harim Foods. To make matters more dystopian, as states scrambled to compost pigs’ remains, hunger in the US was rocketing.

The powerful, well-connected corpo­rations not only weathered the storm, they thrived. Not because they were necessarily better placed to feed people but because, unlike small farmers and fishers, they were allowed to continue their business unchecked. As coronavirus spread, their profits grew. Campaign group GRAIN reports that, in April, Nestlé paid out a record $8 billion to shareholders and executives – nearly double the food-emergency fund requested by the UN’s WFP; Bayer, the world’s largest seed and agrochemical company paid out $2.8 billion to shareholders; Cargill, the world’s largest agribusiness company, is on track to top its 2019 record pay-out of $640 million.

Industrial farming has also helped to create the kinds of environments that give rise to pathogens such as coronavirus in the first place. Since 1940, agriculture has been associated with 50 per cent of all zoonotic infectious diseases – those that jump from animals to humans – as it eats into forests, grasslands and the last wild corners of the world. While many new diseases originate in wildlife, for some of the most serious recent outbreaks – nipah, MERS, Avian Flu, Swine Flu – intensely reared livestock has acted as an ‘amplifier host’. As its fossil fuel-intensive inputs and transport bill drives up greenhouse gas emissions, the pandemic has shown industrial farming to be an ever more reckless and unsafe way to source our food.


Reimagined food ways

A volunteer works on a local farmer’s artichoke field in Spain last April, harvesting surplus fruits for soup kitchens during a national lockdown.

At the same time as the pandemic has brought huge challenges into focus it has also shown that disruptive change can open up new possibilities.

For starters, government authorities showed they could move, at speed, to protect the most vulnerable. By June, no fewer than 195 countries had planned or brought in more social protection, mostly via cash transfers. In the Indian state of Kerala, food distribution was secured by free community kitchens run by women’s networks. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the city bought food from local markets, advised by nutritionists, for those out of work.

In Wuhan, China, buses were commandeered to deliver food, a technique copied in Quito, Ecuador, where the city’s urban gardens were also dispatching 11 tonnes of vegetables to vulnerable neighbourhoods every week. Toronto turned its libraries into food hubs while New York had thousands of out-of-work taxi drivers delivering food parcels.

A farmer from Tamil Nadu India turned to social media to sell nearly 100 tonnes of cabbage

Grassroots responses flowered everywhere. From donations to the destitute in India and Pakistan, to London’s ‘Co-operation Kentish Town’, which put on hold plans to set up a food co-op and became Camden’s first food distribution network, delivering 22,000 food parcels. Or the Chilean bakers Elefante Blanco who provided bread to 300 families; or the Bevy Community Pub in Brighton that delivered 5,000 meals three times a week.

Farmers showed adaptability, creativity – and good use of social media. Kannaiyan Subramaniam from Tamil Nadu, India, turned to Twitter to shift nearly 100 tonnes of cabbage; producers and consumers linked up via WhatsApp. Sudha Narayanan from the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research reports how traditional food sellers – family-run shops and pushcarts that still supply 90 per cent of the Indian market – proved more nimble than modern organized retailers. While malls remained shut, car mechanics were successfully reinventing themselves as fruit and vegetable vendors.

Localized food chains flourished. In the Philippines, the government collected surplus vegetables and took them to urban areas, generating income for producers and cutting out the intermediaries. In France, Poland, the US and China demand soared for community-supported agriculture schemes and farm shops and direct-sale online platforms were used to connect farmers and citizens. Similar schemes sprang up in Ghana as fishers delivered fresh seafood to households.

In South Africa, the Daily Maverick reports how the Ubuntu project brought together ‘poor people with surplus food and poor people without food’, channelling small farmers’ surpluses to those in need. Inspired by box schemes in Brazil and Canada where middle-class households pay upfront to cross-subsidize poorer households, the South African C-19 People’s Coalition plans to turn mutual-aid networks that sprang up during the pandemic into food-buying groups of consumer co-operatives, which can support small-scale producers.


New frontiers

Al-Khidmat Foundation arranges food for distribution during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Peshawar, Pakistan.

The Covid-19 crisis has opened up space for new conversations. In the rich world, there is rising pressure on governments not to leave decision-making on food controls, supplies and prices to food retail giants – prompted not least by the knowledge that obesity gives you a 50 per cent greater chance of falling critically ill with coronavirus. In the UK, the government has rushed out an obesity strategy, with restrictions on both junk-food advertising and promotions of unhealthy foods in supermarkets.

In Kenya, the destruction of tonnes of French beans amid food shortages has been prompting a rethink about how and what the country produces. ‘Opportunities for tapping local and regional markets are becoming clearer after years of dependency on exports,’ according to Jane Ambuko, Head of Horticulture at the University of Nairobi. The lull in cheap Chinese fish imports has sparked talk of a revived domestic fishing industry.

Market failures have also given fresh weight to calls for a radical shift in farming practices. Peasant and indigenous movements and their allies are using this moment to call for more sustainable, self-sufficient approaches that will protect against future shocks – food price hikes or the next pandemic. They call for farming that works in harmony with nature, combining plants and animals to regenerate soils, fertilize crops and fight pests, reducing the need for imported fertilizers, and strengthening local food chains.

Crisis responses could serve as the foundations for a transformed food system, one that is genuinely geared to feeding the least nourished worldwide

The World Food Programme is calling for $4.9 billion over the next six months to avert the worst. But it’s coming at time when rich nations are preoccupied with their own economic problems.

The crisis responses to Covid-19 could serve as the foundations for a transformed food system, one that is genuinely geared to feeding the least nourished worldwide. It could result in shorter supply chains where proceeds are distributed fairly, and in a rebalancing to the benefit of consumers and growers. The goal should be a system of trade that prioritizes a diverse, nutritious food supply while affording its workers and producers dignity and a living wage.

The prospect of multiple famines by the end of this year should tell us, if nothing else does, that food justice cannot wait.

Action and Info
ETC Group: monitors corporations’ impact on biodiversity and agriculture
Via Campesina: international movement of peasant farmers
GRAIN: research and analysis for land justice

Over the coming year, New Internationalist will stay with the hunger story, exploring ways to transform our food systems so that everyone gets to eat. Sign up to our enews below to receive updates.

This work was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme., a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.