World Food Day: Looking for a new avatar in COVID-19 times

What we now need is smart, systemic action to get the food to those who need it and improve it for those who have it, says FAO Director-General 

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Friday 16 October 2020
World Food Day: Looking for a new avatar in COVID-19 times.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations celebrates the World Food Day on October 16, 2020 on the theme: “Grow, nourish, sustain. Together. Our actions are our future”.

The UN body has — in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic — stressed on the need for more resilient and robust agricultural-food systems as well as global solidarity. The call for urgent measures have underlined the rapid reversal of all progress made towards improving nutrition in the last few decades. 

Even before the pandemic, at least three billion people were not able to afford a healthy diet. The figure is likely to inflate as measures to control the crisis — including lockdowns, restriction on movement and loss of income — could exacerbate the lack of access to food. 

FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said:

“COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that our mission is as relevant as when our founders created FAO in 1945. Cataclysms spur renewal. The pandemic has reminded everyone that food security and nutritious diets matter to all. This is why FAO is today embarking on the next chapter in its story with a renewed sense of purpose.”

He added: “What we now need is smart, systemic action to get the food to those who need it and improve it for those who have it.”

The World Food Day marks the day the FAO was established in 1945. At least 150 member countries come together in an effort to end hunger and promote healthy diets.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of food systems, but has also provided an opportunity to transform an out-of-balance agri-food system, according to FAO.

“We cannot use COVID-19 as an excuse to not deliver on our commitment,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the UN Food and Agriculture (FAO) conference on Strengthening Global Governance of Food Security and Nutrition held between October 13 and 15. 

He said COVID-19 pandemic is expected to increase malnutrition among children by as much as 14 per cent globally. This would add 6.7 million more undernourished children in the world, he added. As many as 10,000 children are likely to die each month due to malnutrition during this pandemic year. 

Concerned about the impact of the pandemic and the strategies to respond to it on food systems, directors of United Nations Children’s Fund, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Food Programme and WHO had issued a call for action to protect children’s right to nutrition in July.

It was estimated that a minimum of $2·4 billion would be needed immediately to protect children, prevent and treat malnutrition and avoid human loss. Governments, donors, the private sector and the UN are expected to step in.

The money is likely to be in short supply as economies reel under the economic impact of the crisis. An analysis published in The Lancet on July 27 estimated that even short lockdown measures could lead to an estimated average 7·9 per cent decrease in gross national income (GNI) per capita relative to pre-COVID-19 projections in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). 

A dip in GNI per capita is associated with a massive spike in child wasting (acute malnutrition). When the researchers applied GNI reduction estimates to 118 LMIC countries, a 14·3 per cent increase in the prevalence of moderate or severe wasting among children younger than five years was seen.

This would translate to an additional estimated 6·7 million children with wasting in 2020 compared with projections for 2020 without COVID-19. Nearly 60 per cent such children live in south Asia. 

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