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Brief: Food Security and COVID-19

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July 14, 2021 -- An increasing number of countries are facing growing levels of acute food insecurity, reversing years of development gains. Even before COVID-19 reduced incomes and disrupted supply chains, chronic and acute hunger were on the rise due to various factors including conflict, socio-economic conditions, natural hazards, climate change and pests. COVID-19 impacts have led to severe and widespread increases in global food insecurity, affecting vulnerable households in almost every country, with impacts expected to continue through 2021 and into 2022. This brief looks at rising food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic and World Bank responses to date.

Overview

The Agricultural Commodity Price Index remained near its highest level since 2013, and as of June 15, 2021, was approximately 33% higher than in January 2020. Cereal prices are 43% higher than in January 2020. Surging prices reflect strong demand, along with weather uncertainties, macroeconomic conditions, and COVID-19-related supply disruptions, even though the global production outlook for major grains remains good.

The primary risks to food security are at the country level: Higher retail prices, combined with reduced incomes, mean more and more households are having to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption.

Numerous countries are experiencing high food price inflation at the retail level, reflecting lingering supply disruptions due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, currency devaluations, and other factors. Rising food prices have a greater impact on people in low- and middle-income countries since they spend a larger share of their income on food than people in high-income countries.

Rapid phone surveys done by the World Bank in 48 countries show a significant number of people running out of food or reducing their consumption. Reduced calorie intake and compromised nutrition threaten gains in poverty reduction and health and could have lasting impacts on the cognitive development of young children.

Some food producers also face losses on perishable and nutritious food as consumption patterns shift towards cheaper staples. Though current food insecurity is by and large not driven by food shortages, supply disruptions and inflation affecting key agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and seeds, or prolonged labor shortages could diminish next season’s crop. If farmers are experiencing acute hunger, they may also prioritize consuming seeds as food today over planting seeds for tomorrow, raising the threat of food shortages later on.

Between 720 and 811 million people in the world went hungry in 2020, according to the new UN report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. Looking at the middle of the projected range (768 million), around 118 million more people were facing chronic hunger in 2020 than in 2019. Using a different indicator that tracks year-round access to adequate food, nearly 2.37 billion people (or 30% of the global population) lacked access to adequate food in 2020 – a rise of 320 million in just one year.

Hunger was trending upward even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated existing effects from extreme climate events, conflict, and other shocks to economic opportunities. The locust outbreak is further compounding this crisis across 23 countries and other zoonotic diseases remain a recurrent threat.

COVID-19 is estimated to have dramatically increased the number of people facing acute food insecurity in 2020-2021. WFP estimates that 272 million people are already or are at risk of becoming acutely food-insecure in the countries where it operates. Acute food insecurity is defined as when a person’s life or livelihood is in immediate danger because of lack of food.