The COVID-19 pandemic could fuel a hunger pandemic as food insecurity worsens

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An additional 100 million people or more could be facing starvation this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic weakness has combined with the effects of climate change to put many more people at risk.

“One of the key challenges right now is to make sure that the health pandemic doesn’t turn into a hunger pandemic,” Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of Norwegian fertilizer company Yara International, said at the Fortune CEO Initiative virtual conference on Monday. “The difficult reality right now is that we are moving in the wrong direction on hunger. The numbers are increasing.”

While over 800 million people around the world do not have enough food and go to bed hungry at night, about 135 million were close to starvation level before the pandemic, he noted. “That number is doubling, and COVID-19 is a key driver,” Holsether said.

Holsether’s warning echoed a report on food insecurity from the United Nations in April. While 135 million were at risk of “acute food insecurity” in 2019 in 55 countries, another 130 million people could be pushed into the near-starvation category by the end of 2020 owing to COVID-19 and the resulting economic effects. The collapse of oil prices, for example, put people living in South Sudan at grave risk, the UN noted. About 10% of U.S. households have experienced food insecurity this year, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Still, the pandemic and the reduction in travel and shipping has helped slow global climate change. Businesses and large organizations could build on that trend to improve the environment, with a resulting increase in health and security, Joseph Ucuzoglu, CEO of Deloitte US, told the Fortune conference.

“Societally, there are some tectonic shifts taking place right now that are going to improve the human quality of life over the long term,” Ucuzoglu said, ticking off the increase in remote working and reduction in time spent commuting which has helped “lower our carbon footprint with corresponding benefits on the environment.

“These are frankly perhaps not receiving quite the same level of publicity [as the harms of the pandemic] but have an opportunity to meaningfully improve the human quality of life,” he said.

To best address the various crises, leaders need to take a different approach, given the pandemic, Nandita Bakhshi, president and CEO of Bank of the West, explained at the conference.

“Gone are the days when leaders had to know everything and had to be powerful,” she said. “I think it’s important to show vulnerability; it’s important to show empathy; all of those are extremely important to create a safe environment.”

Bret Taylor, president and COO at Salesforce, agreed.

“We’re in the midst of a health crisis; we’re in the midst of an economic crisis; we’re in the midst of a social justice crisis, particularly here in the United States, and I think we’re in the midst of a leadership crisis, as well,” he said. “The old standards of leadership have shifted.” 

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