The rapid global spread of the COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

Last updated September 14, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed enormous pressure on the global food supply chain as unprecedented quarantine orders and border closures have disrupted trade and created labor shortages.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) warned of “a looming food crisis,” stating that the pandemic could have a devastating impact on global hunger and poverty – especially on the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Global poverty is projected to increase for the first time since 1998, reversing decades of global progress against hunger and malnutrition.

David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme, said that the world “could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions.” Economic crisis, conflict, and a decline in aid create a “perfect storm,” according to Director Beasley, stressing that there is “a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.”

  • As many as half a billion people could be pushed into poverty just as the world experiences the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression.
  • David Malpass, President of the World Bank, warned that COVID-19 may have already pushed an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty.
  • Three dozen countries – including Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen – could experience famines in 2020, pushing an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation.
  • According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), 14 to 22 million people will slide into extreme poverty for every 1% decline in global economic growth.
  • The spread of desert locusts in Africa is compounding the devastating impact of COVID-19 as the biggest locust invasion in 70 years threatens to push 25 million East Africans into hunger.

Supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19 and increased consumer demand for food have drastically increased food prices across the globe – exacerbating the severity of food insecurity for 821 million hungry people in developing countries who already spend most of their income on food.

  • The world food prices increased for the third straight month in August, hitting their highest levels since February, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
  • In the United States, grocery prices in April recorded the sharpest increase in 50 years, led by rising prices for meat and eggs. U.S. meat prices could increase as much as 20% as supplies could shrink by nearly 30%.
  • China’s food prices increased by 11% in August compared with the year before with pork prices jumping by 53%.
  • South Sudan saw prices of wheat and cassava skyrocket by 62% and 41% since February 2020 and the price of maize in Kenya rose by 60% since 2019.
  • The price of rice in Nigeria rose by more than 30% and food prices in Sudan tripled.
  • Ghana saw the price of basic food products jump by as much as 33%.
  • Prices of wheat and rice – two of the most importance staple crops in the world – increased by 15% and 12% respectively with rice prices reaching the highest level since 2013.

Globally, there is an ample supply of staple foods to weather the temporary surge in food prices. But experts are urging immediate actions to mitigate the destructive impact of the pandemic in developing countries. “COVID-19 is a health crisis. But it could also lead to a food security crisis if proper measures are not taken,” said Shenggen Fan, former Director General of IFPRI as he highlighted the Ebola outbreak’s negative impact on food and nutrition security. For example, when the disease struck West Africa in 2014:

  • The price of cassava in Liberia skyrocketed by 150% and labor and transport disruptions left a large percent of farmland uncultivated.
  • Rice prices in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone rose by 30%, reducing household incomes and increasing the level of hunger and malnourishment across the region.

The economic downturn due to the COVID-19 has also affected the availability and affordability of nutritious food. With nutrient-rich foods like eggs, fruits, and vegetables 10 times more expensive than staple foods like rice or wheat in sub-Saharan Africa, vulnerable families in developing countries are turning to cheaper and less nutritious food to survive – contributing to the rise in malnutrition and obesity.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate child hunger and malnutrition as the pandemic has forced more than 1 billion children out of school, depriving their access to nutritious meals.

  • 85 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean, who heavily relied on school feeding programs to combat malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, no longer have access to this crucial social safety net.
  • In South Africa, school closures have stopped a national feeding program that provided nutritious meals to 9 million poor children.
  • The economic impact combined with disruptions to routine health services could result in deaths of 2.3 million children over the next year – a 45% increase in under-five child deaths per month. This is in addition to the nearly 3 million children who are already dying from malnutrition annually.

Trade is key to advancing global food security as the world’s transportation system moves “enough maize, wheat, rice and soybean to feed 2.8 billion people” every year. However, export restrictions and border closures to stop the spread of the virus have led to labor shortages and transportation delays, placing significant pressure on the global food supply chain. FAO chief economist Maximo Torero said, “We need to be careful not to break the food value chain and the logistics … If the labor force is threatened because people can’t move then you have a problem.”

  • The shortage of migrant farm workers may force farmers in the United Kingdom to throw out a third of their harvests. The U.S. State Department has also eased visa restrictions to help American farmers secure migrant farmworkers needed for the upcoming harvest season.
  • France is experiencing a shortage of truck drivers to transport grain to ports. Additionally, border checks across Europe have slowed the passage of trucks carrying food and supplies, creating a 50-mile traffic jam.
  • 14 countries have implemented trade restrictions on the flow of staple foods to protect their domestic supplies. Russia, the world’s largest grain exporter, has limited exports of buckwheat, rice, rye, and sunflower seeds until July. Other countries – Kazakhstan, Cambodia, Serbia, Vietnam, and Ukraine – have also imposed temporary restrictions, including setting quotas, to limit their food exports.
  • These trade restrictions are the “worst possible response to safeguard food security.” For example, these protectionist policies contributed to a 45% increase in rice prices and a 30% increase in wheat prices during the 2007-08 food crisis. High food prices subsequently pushed more than 130 million people into poverty and led to riots in 48 countries.

Written by Sung Lee

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