Editor’s note: The World Food Programme recently warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could double the number of people facing extreme food shortages, bringing the number of those in crisis to about 265 million worldwide. Esther Ngumbi, a professor of entomology and of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who writes and speaks about global food security, spoke with News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates about the practices that can help reduce the problem of global food insecurity.
What events signal that food insecurity is worsening around the world?
In Chile, Kenya and South Africa, we have seen citizens clashing with police and lawmakers as they demand food. At the same time, organizations like the United Nations World Food Programme and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization have released reports signaling a rise in food insecurity. In the U.S., we continue to see long lines outside food banks, which report record-breaking numbers of people in need of food aid.
Where is the problem most dire?
Developing countries and countries that do not have safety net programs and food banks in place are experiencing the worst food insecurity. Many affected people live on less than two dollars a day. Most of them must work to survive, and with the mandatory stay-at-home orders in place, they can no longer earn an income. This pushes them further into food insecurity. Then there is the ongoing locust invasion that began prior to COVID-19. A new wave of locusts is expected, and this will only exacerbate food insecurity.
What other factors influence food security?
The extreme temperatures, droughts and floods associated with climate change continue to bring new challenges to farmers every day. Economic instability, conflict and poverty also worsen the problem. Farms and household gardens suffer from degraded and unhealthy soils and limited access to irrigation technologies, fertilizers or other agricultural inputs. Many people lack basic knowledge about how to improve their production. And agricultural pests cause losses in the field and when crops are harvested and in storage.
What approaches can help societies manage hunger?
There are many tools that can be used, beginning with accurate real-time data to know where the need is and to find immediate ways to distribute food from regions of excess to the people who need it most. The U.S. and other developed countries have existing safety nets like food banks, which have really come in handy to help manage hunger.
Developing countries like Kenya need to find ways to distribute food to their hungry citizens. If no food banks are available, they can send cash or food vouchers to families. Other creative approaches, like rice-dispensing machines in Vietnam, can help. Governments and stakeholders engaged in food-security initiatives need to really get creative to address their local problems.
What policies could help ameliorate hunger during the pandemic?
The world needs policies to ensure that food-distribution channels stay open. This includes maintaining international imports and exports. We need to find ways to ensure that food retailers do not engage in price gouging. Farmers must continue to receive seeds and other agricultural inputs needed to keep crops growing during the pandemic. We also need to incentivize farmers to find creative ways to distribute their crops rather than throwing them away.
Are there any other new approaches would you like to see?
I’d like to see crowdsourcing solutions for dealing with hunger and food insecurity during the pandemic. We know this is going to be a problem in the near future, so why not look for creative solutions and have those solutions implemented quickly?
I also hope more research goes into finding creative ways for families/households to grow their own food during pandemics.