ROME, ITALY — A coronavirus (COVID-19)-triggered recession could leave millions of people hungry, which is why countries should take measures now to lessen the impacts, according to a new policy brief from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Forecasts for the global economy vary in details, but all point to a historic downturn. The International Monetary Fund now expects worldwide gross domestic product to shrink by 3% in 2020, compared to January projections of 3.3% growth. The large downturn also is expected to usher in the first outright recession in sub-Saharan Africa — where about a quarter of the population is undernourished — in 25 years.
Without timely and effective policies, millions of people are likely to join the ranks of the hungry as a result of a recession, the FAO said in its brief.
That number will vary according to the severity of economic contractions, ranging from 14.4 million to 38.2 million people, or even 80.3 million should there be a truly devastating contraction of 10 percentage points in all 101 net food-importing countries' GDP growth.
The brief warns that the actual outcome could be worse if current inequalities in access to food are worsened. It includes scenarios and methodology and a technical note was developed and published simultaneously to explain those aspects in further detail.
“The policy brief offers evidence in favor of making hunger reduction a priority of the economic stimulus measures to address COVID-19,” said Marco V. Sánchez, deputy-director of the FAO’s Agricultural Development Economics Division.
As the world is not facing food shortages, the FAO is urging that countries do their best to keep trade flowing and food supply chains alive and increase agricultural output during the international health crisis. The large-scale fiscal and monetary responses that governments are crafting to respond to the expected blow to economic growth, represent an opportunity to tackle the longstanding issues in many middle and low-income countries of inequality in accessing healthy food.
Cash and in-kind transfers, new credit lines for key actors in food systems, safety nets, income support, distribution programs such as food banks, and continuing school-feeding delivery, should be directed to the most vulnerable and poorest people. Such targeting, the brief enjoins, also will maximize the effect that public resource outlays have on keeping demand more dynamic and safeguarding people from falling into chronically weak dependencies that can last for years.
There are encouraging examples of “stimulus for food” initiatives in low and middle-income countries — at least 106 countries have introduced or adapted social protection measures in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a real-time review of social protection policy measures from the World Bank and the International Labour Organization — although the ability of African countries to deploy cash transfers has so far been weak.
International cooperation and assistance is needed to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries, and this can be linked to recipient countries reallocating more of their own resources to achieve the desired objectives and avoiding the highly adverse outcome of increased inequality in access to food.
Targeting public stimulus measures toward initiatives to bolster food access during the pandemic also offers an opportunity to build more lasting resilience into food systems to safeguard them against economic slowdowns and downturns in the future.
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