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Exclusive: FAO on Covid-19 & Food Insecurity

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By Eleni Panayiotou, Commissioning Editor, Tactics Institute.

 

“In 2019 there were 135 million people all around the world requiring urgent assistance in order not to starve […] 60 - 65% of these people live in conflict-affected areas and they live in fragile contexts”, Luca Russo, Senior Food Crisis Analyst and Strategic Adviser at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a specialised agency of the United Nations (UN) dealing with agriculture and food, tells TACTICS.

As humanity copes with the global Covid-19 pandemic, there are warnings from the UN about growing threats to food security. War-ravaged countries already suffering from food crises are particularly vulnerable.

Looking globally at conflict-affected regions, potential food security crises are easy to spot: “those countries which are worst affected are those which are suffering from insecurity and conflict but also affected by climate change and by economic downturns” says Julius Jackson who, a technical expert specialising in protracted crises at the FAO. According to Jackson, the countries that are worst affected by food crises are those countries that have suffered other protracted crises, which have inflicted repeated shocks that undermine livelihood, such as Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Syria and South Sudan.

The question then becomes how the novel corona virus, Covid-19 will impact these already vulnerable areas. The key to this is of course cross border movement. Across the Sahel region of Africa, people often move part of their livelihood, herds of cattle and other livestock across borders, “this cross border movement is impacted, which means that moving stock is impacted and this could also lead to tensions and local disputes” Jackson explains.

Covid-19 is without a doubt the sting in the tail of crisis “in the same places where we see the worst incidents of food insecurity now, but compounded with additional factors brought on by covid19 such as restrictions in movement, disruptions to the food supply chain more broadly, and indeed potentially exacerbating existing conflict drivers in conflict lines” says Jackson

A country that looks like it may be particularly impacted by the Covid-19 factor is Somalia. The Somali economy depends very much on remittance; if these remittances from the Somali diaspora in Europe and the US stop due to the economic crisis and unemployment this will have a serious impact on the Somali people and these remittances are extremely important “for the food security of the people living in Somalia […] if there is an export ban because of Covid the whole Somali economy will collapse”, Frank Russo tells us. It is quite clear that Covid-19 is placing a lot of stress on societies everywhere but where you already have “a fractured societal state relationship there is opportunity for those fractures to be exacerbated by Covid-19” states Jackson who then proceeds in describing the demonstrations in Chile, where a hike in food prices created resentment towards the government and provided the conditions for friction to intensify at a period such as this.

Food prices and food security are related. However, as Josef Schmidhuber, Deputy Director of the Trade and Markets Division at the FAO tells TACTICS, it is “possible that prices for grain and oil seeds are high at the local level in locations where international to domestic price transmission is low, such as in land locked countries, like Afghanistan or countries with poor infrastructure…you can have local prices at very high levels not only because of currency devaluations, but also because of supply bottlenecks”.

Another example where Covid-19 is worsening crises is in East Africa, where there’s not only a health crisis because of the pandemic but “there is also a food production crisis because of the locusts”, says Schmidhuber.

FAO is currently leading the exercise of locust control and as Luca Russo explains to us the Organisation has been able to mobilise parts of their central resources to undertake the control of the infestation. However, he explains that, because of Covid, there is considerable difficulty in implementing some of the operations needed to be put in place but they have been able to save a substantial level of production which he estimates is “at least five times the cost of these measures” being put in place.

As history has shown, most recently with the Arab Spring in 2011, no power system wastes the opportunity of a good crisis to further their own aims; will this pandemic act as a catalyst in exacerbating already existing conflicts and give us another Arab Spring? Frank Russo says no. He believes that governments have learnt their lesson and that “today everybody is advising governments not to enter in this kind of policy measures which were a disaster in 2008”. Back in 2008, what took place was the closure of all borders and in effect the cessation of all imports and exports which lead to a massive rise in food prices that consequently lead to revolts. “Globally the production is high this year so there is no need to worry about global food production, so we do not expect the rise of prices as we saw in 2008” he says.

More recently the Islamic State (ISIS) tried to take advantage of Iraq's preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic and the global coalition's suspension of military operations against ISIS in the area. Some Iraqi parties have warned that in the meantime, ISIS might once again take control of large parts of the country's northwest.

This is potentially dangerous for areas such as these, as restrictions over movement mean “less availability of peacekeeping troops”, according to Jackson. However multinational military forces should be able to mitigate some of the immediate food security crises, either by facilitating access or otherwise. This, though, is not as simple as it seems since the use of multinational forces may in some cases, as Julius Jackson explains “imperil provision of assistance to vulnerable populations”.

Nevertheless, Jackson adds, “civilian military coordination is absolutely essential in order to save lives and alleviate suffering” therefore “dialogue between military and humanitarian actors is critical to be able to deliberate and get access to certain areas” so there always needs to be consistent and affective engagement.

 

To watch all of our food security interviews, please click here.