Across the world, about 1.2bn people live in extreme poverty, on less than $1 per day, according to a 2018 World Health Organisation report. At least 17mn children suffer from severe acute malnutrition around the world, which is the direct cause of death of 2mn children every year.
The Covid-19 pandemic has once again turned the spotlight on the fundamental problem the humanity faces, especially in the developing world: How to acquire such basic necessities of life as food, cloth and shelter.
Risks, for sure, are now rising for the world’s complex food supply networks as more countries bring down the shutters to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease.
Lockdowns could bring about snarl-ups in processing and transport, leading to price spikes for many fresh goods, even if farms in developed markets can keep working through the outbreak.
But, as a matter of fact, there is no good reason for the Covid-19 pandemic to cause global food shortages, at least of wheat, rice, or other staples.
While the virus isn’t foodborne, plenty of food still continues to be produced, processed, and delivered despite illnesses and lockdowns, and the world’s appetite hasn’t abruptly increased.
There is, however, one bad reason for shortages: hoarding. If some people needlessly buy too much food, or sell too little of their production out of concern that there won’t be enough, others will lose out.
On a global scale, stocks of corn, wheat, soybeans and rice are healthier than before previous periods of food inflation. While some prices have been heading higher, increases aren’t across the board.
The US Department of Agriculture expects global wheat production to rise almost 5% this year, while rice is seen as stable.
Yet with infection rates rising across the world, there are worrying signs. Kazakhstan has banned exports of buckwheat and wheat flour to preserve domestic supplies.
Russia, the world’s top wheat shipper, could limit some sales overseas, a threat that has already pushed up prices.
During the 2006-08 spike, such behaviour accounted for 45% of the increase in rice prices, and almost a third for wheat, according to a study published by the World Bank.
While prices are still well below 2008 or 2011, there are glimpses of how quickly the situation could change.
Chinese food prices surged more than a fifth in January from a year earlier as the epidemic took hold.
One thing Covid-19 has made clear is how finely tuned global food supply chains are.
Make no mistake, the great global food divide has been widening even before the virus outbreak.
The world loses about $400bn of food before it even gets delivered to stores, according to the United Nations. An estimated 14% of global food production is wasted every year and around 45% of all child deaths worldwide are from causes related to undernutrition, says the WHO.
Hunger is a biting reality and societies tend to unravel when people are starving.
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