Issue No. 5 | May 2020

Hunger of ‘biblical proportions’ already here, to stay even after pandemic

The long-term devastating impacts of the global recession on productive forces, along with the lingering structural issues of poverty and destructive neoliberal food policies provide the objective conditions for hunger and food insecurity to persist and worsen even after the pandemic.

For people who live from hand to mouth, to be placed on lockdown is like being condemned to starve. (Photo credit: UNICEF/UNI28149/Dean)

Several global institutions have repeatedly warned of an impending food crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Food Programme (WFP) gave the direst warning yet, sounding the alarm of famines of ‘biblical proportions’ that will shove 130 million people more to the verge of starvation. This is alarming not only because of the huge number of people who could die of hunger – perhaps, tragically even higher than the death toll from the novel coronavirus itself.

It is especially disquieting due to the fact that even without COVID-19, those who are famished are already at ‘biblical proportions.’ The WFP itself noted that 135 million people were already facing acute food shortages before the pandemic. COVID-19 is expected to double that number.

Furthermore, the projected number of additional hungry people in the world because of the pandemic will be equivalent to, if not even higher, than the accumulated increase in the number of severely food insecure in the past several years. This could be a major crisis in Asia, where there is a big concentration of people suffering from hunger and food insecurity.

Prior to the pandemic, there are about 821.6 million chronically hungry people worldwide, based on estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Six out of every 10 chronically hungry people in the world are Asians – or about 513.9 million. The UN food agency says chronic hunger is when a person does not consume sufficient calories (dietary energy) on a regular basis leading to undernourishment.

Using another indicator, the FAO also estimates that there are more than two billion people worldwide who face food insecurity – 1.3 billion on a “moderate” level and 704.3 million on a “severe” level. Regardless of degree of intensity, out of every two people in the world who are food insecure, one of them is Asian.

More than a billion people in the region experience food insecurity. About 684.9 million Asians face moderate food insecurity, or as defined by the FAO, a condition of lack of consistent access to food due to lack of money or other resources. Some 353.6 million Asians, meanwhile, experience hunger or worse, gone for days without eating – or what is called severe food insecurity. (See Table)

Note that relative to population size, the situation is worst in Africa where one out of five are severely food insecure and chronically hungry. In Asia, the prevalence of severe food insecurity is 7.8% while the prevalence of undernourishment (or chronic hunger) is 11.3 percent.

A quick note on the FAO’s measures of hunger and food insecurity. Its indicator on food insecurity – the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) – is an estimate of how many people lack access to nutritious and sufficient food gathered by directly asking people through surveys. On the other hand, its indicator on undernourishment/chronic hunger – the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) – is an estimate of how many people lack enough dietary energy computed using macro data on food availability and consumption.

While these FAO indicators have been criticized for their tendency to underestimate the extent of the problem, they are nonetheless the currently available data that attempt to capture at the global and regional levels the magnitude and incidence of hunger and food insecurity in relation to the dimensions of availability of food and people’s ability to access it.

Anyway, the hunger prognosis driven by the pandemic is unsettling given the previously deteriorating global trend in food insecurity based on both the PoU and the FIES. The number of undernourished jumped by 36.1 million between 2014 and 2018, growing steadily every year. This trend in the PoU in recent years is a complete reversal of decades of steady decline. Similarly, during the same period, the number of people experiencing food insecurity increased by 317.5 million; of this number, the severely food insecure grew by 119.3 million. This means that the expected increase of 130 million people on the brink of starvation in 2020 due to COVID-19 will easily eclipse the cumulative annual increases in the number of undernourished and severely food insecure during that five-year span (2014 to 2018) when data are available. (See Chart)

Again, Asia accounted for more than half (51.3% or 162.9 million) of the global increase in the number of food insecure and lion’s share (40% or 47.7 million) of the increase in severely food insecure during the 2014-2018 period. Looking more closely within Asia, the spread of food insecurity in the region is pushed by huge increases in South Asia, which comprised 51.2% or 83.4 million of the total regional increase in the number of people who are food insecure. South Asia also accounted for 51.6% or 24.6 million of the increase among the severely food insecure in the region.

The situation of hunger and food insecurity in South Asia should be closely monitored in light of the pandemic and how governments have responded to deal with the health crisis. India, in particular, has implemented the world’s largest lockdown to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. It is just behind the Philippines in terms of the restrictions and other measures taken to enforce the lockdown, based on Google’s movement data. India accounts for about 70% of the undernourished in South Asia, based on available data from the FAO. Eighty percent of 470 million Indian workers are in the informal economy – manual laborers in the country’s fields, factories and streets – who are further impoverished by the lockdown and pushed to starvation.

For people like them who live from hand to mouth, to be placed on lockdown is like being condemned to starve. It does not help that in many cases, government assistance is unreliable due to lack of resources; misplaced priorities and twisted agenda (such as using the pandemic for more repression as many authoritarian regimes in Asia do); and/or bureaucratic neglect, inefficiency and corruption.

Indeed, longstanding structural issues of poverty and economic dislocations of the great majority of the world’s population are the underlying factors behind a deteriorating hunger crisis, which the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating at a catastrophic rate. The poor are vulnerable, but especially the poor in poor countries. As the level of national incomes fall, the prevalence of food insecurity and the proportion of severe food insecurity both increase, based on FAO data. About 62% of people in low-income countries are food insecure, while 27% are severely food insecure. In contrast, just 9% of people in high-income countries are food insecure; barely 2% are severely food insecure.

With the health crisis now transformed into a global economic recession that could be potentially the most severe since the Great Depression almost a century ago, and which could wipe out the livelihood of 1.6 billion people, poverty levels are  bound to deteriorate as wealth and resources become even more concentrated among the rich within and between countries. There is a direct correlation between economic slowdown or downturn and worsening hunger or food insecurity. To illustrate, 84% of countries that saw chronic hunger rise among their population between 2011 and 2017 also saw their economy decelerate or decline during the period, based on FAO data.

While other countries could suffer greater hunger due to climate crisis or conflict, the impact of economic crisis on hunger and food insecurity is doubly potent. An economic downturn can raise the prevalence of chronic hunger by 5.1 percentage points; a climate crisis by 2.3 points and conflict, by 2.2 points. But of course, what we have been witnessing are multiple, inter-related crises of the economy, climate and conflict, and now we add the pandemic. The outlook for the famished is truly grim, to say the least.

Another dimension of the hunger and food insecurity facing many underdeveloped countries in Asia and elsewhere is their greatly weakened, if not decimated, capacity under neoliberal globalization to feed their people through their own production. These countries were previously capable of domestic food production for local consumption, even with surpluses for exports until agreements like those in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and even earlier structural adjustment programs under the auspices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) opened the floodgates of imported food and agricultural commodities.

Take the case of the Philippines, which accounts for almost a quarter of the chronically hungry and almost half of the severely food insecure in Southeast Asia. From food trade surpluses averaging USD 275.6 million in the 1960s; USD 760.2 million in the 1970s; and USD 691.6 million in the 1980s; it has been posting food trade deficits of USD 250.4 million in the 1990s; USD 960.2 million in the 2010s; and USD 1.7 billion this decade, using FAO data which exclude fish imports and exports.

Food and agricultural imports killed the livelihood of already impoverished local farmers and other small food producers, driving a quarter of the labor force into the vicious cycle of debt, poverty and hunger. Meanwhile, overall food prices remained high for majority of the population despite the influx of heavily-subsidized food imports, with food expenditures comprising as high as 59% of family expenditure of the poorest income groups.

Its import-dependent food supply has been put in greater peril by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the Philippines further liberalized its rice importation to comply with a WTO obligation; consequently, the country overtook China to become the world’s largest rice importer. Alas, its traditional suppliers like Vietnam and Thailand as well as Cambodia started restricting exports to protect their own domestic needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic and historic drought.

A recent FAO study of 129 low and middle-income countries concluded that high levels of export and import dependence on primary commodities (e.g., raw materials, food and other agricultural goods) have a statistically significant and negative effect on food security. Covering the period 1995 to 2017, the FAO said that a one-percent increase in dependence on the exports of primary commodities translates to a 2.2% increase in the prevalence of chronic hunger. For countries that are import-dependent for food and other primary commodities, the correlation is stronger – a one-percent increase in import dependence translates to a 3.8% increase in the prevalence of chronic hunger.

All these belie the shallow narrative that the intensification of global hunger and food insecurity is merely due to disruptions in the supply chain and logistical bottlenecks caused by the COVID-19 lockdowns. To be sure, restrictions in transportation and mobility do impact the availability and supply of food. But these are just immediate, temporary impacts that can be addressed once lockdowns are gradually eased.

Even then, the long-term devastating impacts of the global recession on productive forces, along with the lingering structural issues of poverty and destructive neoliberal food policies provide the objective conditions for hunger and food insecurity to persist and worsen even after the pandemic. To reverse the trend, a serious rethinking of prevailing food and economic policies and systems at the global and national levels must take place.  ###

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