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The first wave of response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, thus far, encouraging signs of global cooperation on public health. But there is a global food crisis building on the horizon, and we have precious little time to act in order to prevent devastation.
The World Food Programme has identified 49 countries at high risk of experiencing food crises as a result of COVID-19. For the almost 307 million highly food-insecure people living in these countries, the economic and food security consequences may be worse than the impacts of the disease itself.
On April 5, Minister of International Development Karina Gould announced that Canada has allocated $159.5 million to support its international partners as they work to prevent and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. These investments will help save lives in Canada and around the world. It is imperative that this funding be the first phase of an ongoing response.
The spread of COVID-19 has precipitated critical shocks throughout the global food system.
Farmers — especially the small-scale farmers who are the last line of defense against food insecurity in their communities — are among the worst hit. Trade interruptions are limiting access to seeds and other inputs at a critical moment in many regions, with the planting season about to begin. Social distancing and mobility restrictions also create a high level of vulnerability for farmers in the global South, where agriculture is more labour intensive. In Pakistan, around 70 per cent of small-scale farmers rely on migratory farm labourers who have been unable to travel, according to the Anadolu Agency.
At the same time, lockdowns are creating a surge in staple food prices in many areas — as much as 20 to 33 per cent in Ghana, for example, according to the Cornell Alliance for Science.
Faced with hunger, farming families may be forced to make the impossible choice of eating their grain and pulse seeds to survive today, sacrificing tomorrow’s harvest. Local agricultural organizations have signalled this same risk is on the horizon now.
Many food systems in the global South were already under stress before this crisis, due to climate change, migration and political instability. The impacts of COVID-19 could take these already strained food systems beyond their breaking point.
Women and girls will be the hardest hit. Most rural women in the global South are farmers, focusing primarily on small-scale production for their households and communities. In many places, women are also the traditional seed-keepers, maintaining seed supplies to assure harvests for future years. Yet, they are systematically denied land rights, excluded from household and community decision-making and denied access to resources and capital.
This marginalization is exacerbated in times of crisis. Women and girls in food-insecure households eat last and least, according to the World Food Programme. At the same time, increased pressure on local food and seed production places additional demands on women’s labour. It is incumbent upon us to take action to prevent the mass suffering of food-insecure women and girls, and to support their critical work as farmers.
Fighting a food crisis is a lot like combatting a pandemic — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
"The spread of COVID-19 has precipitated critical shocks throughout the global food system."
We know the vulnerabilities, and the prescriptions needed to mitigate harm. Farmers who have lost access to external inputs and affordable food need support to boost local seed, crop, livestock and input production, and expand community and home gardens. If we do this in ways that make use of locally available resources, and support sustainable farming practices, we will also bolster resilience to future crises, including climate change.
As we have witnessed in Canada, demands on food systems during this time are immense. We need to come together now to prevent the COVID-19 health crisis from starting a global food crisis.
Canada has demonstrated impressive international leadership on gender equality through our Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). This gendered approach must continue in our food security response. By taking action now, we can save the lives of people who may survive the virus, but die from lack of food.
Canada has a critical role to play in leading this global response.