Stian Rice is a food systems geographer and author of Famine in the Remaking: Food System Change and Mass Starvation in Hawaii, Madagascar, and Cambodia, new from West Virginia University Press. Here he shares perspective on the entwined crises of pandemic and famine.
As the curtains opened on 2020, famine watchers warned that 135 million people in 55 countries were experiencing acute food insecurity and an elevated risk of starvation. War in Yemen, an economic crisis in Zimbabwe, and a locust plague in East Africa were set to repeat as the defining challenges for the new year. In the words of World Food Program (WFP) executive director David Beasley, “2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two.” And then COVID-19 stole the show. Since then, quarantine and stay-at-home orders have strangled food supply chains. The collapse of oil prices has left some governments without revenue to feed their populations. Tens of millions, dependent on daily wages, face uncertainty over their next meals. School closures have deprived 368 million children of meals and snacks. And the strain is beginning to show: looting, protests, and ration line stampedes are being reported from Latin America to South Asia. Last week the WFP nearly doubled its estimate to 265 million facing acute hunger by the end of the year. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture in developed countries has become a theater of the absurd as farmers plow under crops, breeders kill off millions of surplus chickens, and dairy operations dump spoiled milk into fragile watersheds.
Disease epidemics are well-known consequences of famine. Measles, typhoid, and cholera are frequent visitors to weakened bodies in packed relief camps. But famine resulting from an epidemic has received far less attention. That said, the flu pandemic of 1918—an oft-cited analog for the current pandemic—helped precipitate starvation in East Africa and India, and exacerbated ongoing famine in Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Famine and pandemic conspire to raise the body count as each accelerates the spread of the other. Today, the social distancing policies that slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 hinder the distribution of food at retailers, street vendors, soup kitchens, and relief centers. Our best tool for fighting one is turned against us by the other. The daunting reality is that famine and pandemic require integrated solutions.
The strain is beginning to show: looting, protests, and ration line stampedes are being reported from Latin America to South Asia.
Where should we expect to see starvation? WFP has identified several countries with high risk populations, and for famine watchers, these include the usual suspects: Yemen, South Sudan, DR Congo, Venezuela, and Ethiopia, among others. But the scale of COVID-19 and its interaction with global and regional food systems suggest starvation may emerge in some unexpected places: (1) among the poor in wealthy countries where elite purchasing power can drive up food prices; (2) in urban areas among wage laborers and the homeless; and (3) in economic sectors that depend on international trade or tourism for revenue. To complicate matters further, starvation—even mass starvation—may occur slowly and silently. Whereas the death toll from COVID-19 is broadcast in real time to dashboards around the world, it may take years to know how many have starved. In fact, depending on how food systems respond to the pandemic, it may take years for starvation to ebb.
Beyond supporting food relief programs, what can we do? In the short term, we must find innovative solutions to immediate production and consumption challenges all along the food chain. Much of the public debate today revolves around maintaining the shutdown or returning to business-as-usual: binaries that feed into the reinforcing relationship between pandemic and famine. Instead, we must invent more nuanced approaches that address specific limitations—and take advantage of unique resources—in each locale. Sudanese pastoral communities impacted by shuttered livestock markets will need vastly different tools than South African townships dependent on street vendors.
Much of the public debate today revolves around maintaining the shutdown or returning to business-as-usual: binaries that feed into the reinforcing relationship between pandemic and famine.
In the longer term, we should take this opportunity to begin reorganizing our food system. In 1918, pandemic-initiated food crises occurred in colonial economies about to be subsumed into a globalized food system. Today, decades of rising inequality and growing dependence on international markets for basic nutrition has increased vulnerability. The purpose of our food system has shifted from the efficient production of food to the efficient accumulation of capital by way of food. From the perspective of accumulation, if there is no profitable way to connect food with the starving, then destroying the former while the latter die isn’t absurd at all; in fact, it’s the system working as designed. Such a system has proven ill-equipped to protect life in this crisis, let alone the next one. Uncoupling some of the destructive linkages between capital and food should become a priority—doing so may help uncouple the linkages between pandemic and famine.