According to data from the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, the number of people who face food crises in 2020 is likely to double, ballooning from 135 million to 265 million.
The effect is expected to be most acute in areas with high numbers of displaced people since these areas already experience serious food crises. But even in wealthy nations, millions who depend on their wages to buy food have lost their jobs.
While the pandemic has slowed the global economy nearly to a halt, the increase in global food insecurity won’t ultimately be due to COVID-19. It will be the result of inefficient and inhumane practices.
Many farms are destroying fresh food because they cannot sell it given that major buyers such as schools, restaurants and hotels are closed. Millions gallons of milk and hundreds of thousands of eggs are being destroyed on a daily basis, not to mention vegetables and beans. Some farmers are donating excess perishable food to local food pantries, but pantries can only absorb so much.
Indiana farmers haven’t yet reported having to destroy food, and most are concerned about COVID-19’s impact on planting for next season. However, dropping prices and closed businesses have made that a possibility for the near future, especially for the state’s dairy farmers.
Why, can’t some excess food be exported or shipped to other parts of the country that need or have space for the food that is being destroyed? There are logistical problems, and many poorer countries have more labor-intensive supply chains that could expose workers to COVID-19. The answer, however, is ultimately that it’s unprofitable, and there is no competent national or international governance to help farmers absorb the blow and distribute excess food.
Farmers don’t want to be wasteful — the New York Times reported on farmers fighting back tears as they dumped thousands of pounds of food. But they are unwilling to go further into the red to ship the groceries to people who need it when those people cannot pay.
The first major obstacle here is money — hungry people don’t have the money to buy food, and farmers don’t have or won’t spend the money to get it to them if they won’t make a profit. The second is supply chain disruption, leaving even those with jobs or money wondering whether enough food will even come to their areas due to poor distribution.
Both of these problems can and should be addressed by competent national and international governance. Federal governments and intergovernmental organizations could facilitate the transportation of the food in question to areas that need it.
Most importantly, they could pay farmers and facilitate repayments, loans or grants for the countries and organizations that need to pay later. This could save millions of lives and prevent massive amounts of waste, especially for foods such as eggs and beans, which have a relatively long shelf lifebut are being destroyed for financial reasons.
The solution to — or, more realistically, the mitigation of — a global food crisis of this magnitude is not simple. However, addressing this problem is also not impossible, and the fact that massive destruction of food is occurring at the same time as hundreds of millions of people go hungry is unconscionable.
We are told that the invisible hand of the market is rational and efficient, but putting profit over people generates unreasonable and unnecessary waste. The invisible hand doesn’t do much for people who are starving. It doesn’t do much for people who lose their jobs and their health care all at once due to a pandemic.
Regulations exist to protect the people who are otherwise crushed by the invisible hand that isn’t as all-knowing and rational as some economists want it to be, either through neglect or exploitation. If a crisis of this magnitude is not the time for governments to step up, there is no such time.
Kaitlyn Radde (she/her) is a sophomore studying political science. She plans to pursue a career in public interest law.