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DAVOS 2021: World facing 'hunger pandemic' due to COVID and climate change

SANA'A, YEMEN - JANUARY 26: A Yemeni malnourished child lies on a bed where he receives treatment at the malnutrition treating department in Al-Sabeen hospital on January 26, 2021 in Sana'a, Yemen. The situation in Yemen is getting worse and it is projected that the population will experience alarming levels of acute malnutrition and food insecurity in Yemen which is the site of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, where over 24 million out of the country's total population of 30 million need humanitarian aid, and one in five children in danger of malnutrition. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
A Yemeni malnourished child lies on a bed where he receives treatment at the malnutrition treating department in Al-Sabeen hospital on January 26, 2021 in Sana'a, Yemen. Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

COVID-19 has exacerbated the “hunger pandemic” facing the world, with leaders calling for urgent action to tackle the sustainability of the global food system.

David Beasley, the executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), said the number of people on the brink of starvation globally had doubled from 135 million to 270 million due to COVID-19, which has disrupted supply chains around the world. Numbers were already rising sharply due to wars prior to the pandemic.

“We’re struggling now because 700 million people go to bed hungry, 270 million because of COVID are really on the brink of starvation,” Beasley said during an appearance on a virtual panel at the Davos Agenda conference on Wednesday.

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“Right now the struggles are really in the poor countries but what do you think is going to happen when you don’t have enough food in Brussels or Chicago or Berlin? You’ve got to look at the poor countries and the rich ones because you’re talking about supply chain disruption.

“If you think you had trouble getting toilet roll in New York because of supply chain disruption, what do you thinks happening in Chad and Niger and Mali and places like that?”

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Hiroko Kuniya, a Japanese journalists who specialises on coverage of the UN’s sustainable development goals, said the world was facing a “hunger pandemic” and “regressing” as a result of COVID-19.

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Kuniya, who chaired the discussion, cited figures that 2 billion people around the world did not have access to safe or sufficient food supplies and said challenges would only worsen with the global population forecast to rise to 10 billion by 2050. Climate change and the global recession brought about by COVID-19 make the problem even worse, she said.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the “collective action” demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic showed the world had the ability to tackle the looming food crisis. He said the UN must lead the way and stressed that businesses were essential in helping to scale up solutions.

Geraldine Matchett, the chief finance officer of Dutch multinational Royal DSM, appeared alongside Rutte on the panel and said economics was key.

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“The farmer needs to earn more when producing food sustainably,” she said. “If we truly want to do the food systems, the farmers need to be better off when they do the right things for the planet.”

Beasley, who accepted the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the WFP, said there was “a lot of work to do”.

“Now people are beginning to wake up and step up,” he said. “COVID exacerbated a vulnerable supply chain system and food systems.

“What leaders are now beginning to recognise… if we don’t receive the support and the funds that we need, you will have mass famine — starvation — you’ll have destabilisation of nations, and you’ll have mass migration. The cost of that is a thousands times more.”

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