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Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) - Addressing the impacts of COVID-19 in food crises (May update)

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At the beginning of April, the 2020 edition of the Global Report on Food Crises was issued, presenting a stark warning for the future. In 2019 – prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – 135 million people experienced “crisis” and worse levels of acute food insecurity. A further 183 million were on the edge in “stressed” food security conditions. In other words, just one shock away from severe acute food insecurity. COVID-related restrictions risk pushing many more into crisis. As the pandemic progresses in food crisis contexts, food availability as well as food access could emerge as a serious concern – in both rural and urban areas. As the situation evolves, there is a real concern about the growing risk of famine in some countries, potentially even several famines occurring simultaneously. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, globally there were 27 million people in “emergency” (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification [IPC]/Cadre harmonisé [CH] Phase 4) levels of acute food insecurity, potentially on the brink of famine. The direct and indirect effects of the pandemic could have catastrophic effects on many of them. In April 2020, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) Global Food Security Alert warned about the risk that populations in northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen could face famine as consequence of the pandemic. In Somalia, the latest data from the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit indicates around 3.5 million people are projected to be in IPC Phase 3 and above through September – a three‑fold increase compared with early 2020.

Anticipatory action to safeguard livelihoods and increase access to food is urgently needed to prevent new or worsening food crises. Preventing food crises cannot wait until the health crisis is resolved. Impacts on food access are already being seen, even in the world’s wealthiest countries. For those living in contexts already experiencing food crises as a result of conflict, climate or economic instability, there is no time to waste. Up to 80 percent of people living in these contexts rely on some form of agricultural production for their livelihoods. Even in countries, such as Yemen, that rely heavily on imports, locally produced food plays an important role in meeting people’s needs and especially in ensuring dietary diversity. While the challenges facing vulnerable rural populations differ significantly according to the context and the evolutions of the pandemic, there are a number of common risks, including planting affected by reduced access to inputs due to limited market access and reduced incomes; harvesting disrupted by lack of seasonal labour; transport to markets reduced due to movement restrictions; and markets themselves constrained by lockdowns, physical distancing and lower purchasing power.

Responding to these challenges requires urgent action. Critical agricultural seasons, livestock movements for pasture and water, harvesting activities cannot be put on hold as we tackle the virus. Without support, many vulnerable people will be forced to rely on humanitarian assistance just to survive – a humanitarian system already stretched to its limits before COVID‑19. Anticipatory action now to avert deteriorating or emerging food crises is not just more cost effective than waiting to rebuild livelihoods and communities later, it is more humane and respectful of the dignity of the millions of people relying on some form of agriculture for their livelihoods. The Global COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan has been revised significantly upwards to reflect the increasingly urgent need to address non-health impacts of COVID-19. Of these needs, the food security sector represents the largest component, for a total of USD 1.6 billion. As part of this, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is seeking USD 350 million to ensure the provision of critical assistance where there are already high levels of need, while meeting new needs emerging from the effects of COVID-19.

FAO will focus on four main activities, carried out at the global, regional and country levels:

  • a global data facility to support data collection and analyses and inform evidence-based programming, contributing to FAO’s Hand‑in‑Hand initiative and associated data platform1. The data facility is being rolled out in close collaboration with key partners such as the World Food Programme (WFP), the global Food Security Cluster and the Global Network Against Food Crises partnership;
  • stabilizing incomes and access to food as well as preserving ongoing livelihood and food production assistance for the most acutely food‑insecure populations;
  • ensuring continuity of the critical food supply chain for the most vulnerable populations; and
  • ensuring people along the food supply chain are not at risk of COVID‑19 transmission through awareness raising, social messaging and community mobilization, together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and national authorities.