KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — Perhaps there has never been a more worthy Nobel Peace Prize recipient than the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), which in October was recognized by the Nobel Committee for its efforts in combating world hunger.
Created in 1961 at the behest of former US President Dwight Eisenhower as an experiment to provide food aid through the UN system, the program has literally saved billions from starvation over the years. In 2019 alone, the WFP provided assistance to close to 100 million people in 88 countries who were victims of acute food insecurity and hunger, but the venerable organization has never faced a greater challenge than it does today as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, 12 months after it began.
The worst global health crisis in a century had, as of mid-December, infected nearly 73 million people, killed more than 1.6 million and led to the biggest global economic collapse since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Rising unemployment is leading to an increasing number of people who fall into the “food insecure” category. The WFP estimates that acute food insecurity has doubled worldwide during 2020, from 135 million to 270 million people, roughly equivalent to the number of people who inhabit Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country.
While the recent development and distribution of several vaccines offer hope that the worst of COVID-19 soon may be behind us, David Beasley, director of the WFP, warns that 2021 could become the year of a different sort of pandemic. In an interview in late November with the Associated Press, Beasley warned that without billions of dollars in donations to the organization, “we are going to have famines of biblical proportions in 2021.”
One of his biggest concerns is that with deferred debt payments for low- and middle-income countries resuming in January and less money available for more economic stimulus packages, the financial resources that were available in 2020 will not be there this year.
Since its inception, the WFP has counted on the generosity of the global grain sector, obtaining both monetary and in-kind donations from governments and private businesses. For example, shortly after the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, Cargill, North America’s largest agribusiness company, donated $1 million to the WFP and challenged other US corporations to join the Stop Starvation Now campaign.
It’s human nature to default to a more cautious, protective mode during uncertain times. In a time of crisis — especially one of this magnitude — countries might be tempted to stockpile grain they may otherwise have donated to the war on hunger or companies might consider reducing monetary donations to protect a shrinking bottom line. But in today’s globalized economy and with the International Grains Council forecasting a world record in grain production in 2020-21 and ample carryover stocks, steps must be taken to ensure that organizations like the WFP are fully armed with the resources they need to serve those whose lives hang in the balance.
I have no doubt the global grain industry will continue to do its part. Sadly, even if the virus is brought under control, the economic carnage from this pandemic will continue to be felt for many months to come, particularly in the world’s poorest countries and regions.