Food companies may say “Black Lives Matter” and insist they are determined to “protect” essential workers, but there’s an inconvenient reality hidden behind these public proclamations. Many of these food companies are profiting handsomely while global hunger continues to rise, says a leading humanitarian aid organization.
The NGO Oxfam recently lashed out at global food companies in a recent report. Calling the novel coronavirus a “hunger virus,” the writers of this report describe as unconscionable that 12,000 people a day could die from hunger exacerbated by COVID-19 while eight of the world’s largest food companies have paid a collective $18 billion to their shareholders since the beginning of this year.
From Oxfam’s point of view, the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a bevy of social problems all contributing to global hunger, including mass unemployment, declining humanitarian aid, a broken food supply chain, climate change and income inequality.
And despite the fact that certain regions of the world, including North America, the European Union and Australia, can boast food surpluses (despite panic buying), Oxfam paints a nefarious picture of food companies “using” the COVID-19 pandemic to hike prices on consumers.
The problem is everywhere. Indeed, some of the most vulnerable nations, including Yemen, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Haiti, are “extreme hunger hotspots,” according to Oxfam’s statistics. But wealthier countries are not immune from food insecurity. That includes the U.S., where Oxfam cited data suggesting consumer prices have risen 2.6 percent, even while farm income has decreased.
“Now the coronavirus has combined with the impacts of conflict, spiraling inequality and an escalating climate crisis to shake an already broken global food system to its foundations, leaving millions more on the brink of starvation,” say the authors of this Oxfam report.
While Oxfam certainly wags its finger at the private sector for its contributions to the emerging global hunger crisis, the NGO for the most part leaves it up to governments to launch drastic action in order to solve these problems. The organization’s six-point plan includes a call for wealthier governments to support humanitarian aid worldwide to prevent people from succumbing to starvation. In addition, Oxfam calls for both the private and public sectors to work together and ensure employees across the entire agribusiness value chain can safely show up for work, whether they are farmworkers or street vendors.
And in a nod to the fact that women play a huge role within the global food industry, yet generally face the most risk (and often have little influence in the worldwide COVID-19 response), Oxfam is calling for bolder action to address the discrimination they face when it comes to scoring credit, technology and access to land.
As data suggest the number of total COVID-19 cases will soon reach 14 million, Oxfam envisions an even harsher surge in global hunger if more drastic measures are not taken.
The real canaries in the coal mine now are Brazil, India and South Africa. Oxfam describes each of these middle-income countries as “emerging hotspots,” where social distancing measures – if they are followed at all – tend to push the poorest citizens to hunger rapidly as they have little or no safety net. The three nations are also important parts of the global food supply chain yet travel restrictions and lockdowns have left many communities at risk. Small-scale farmers in India, for example, have been unable to hire migrant workers at the peak of harvest season.
Oxfam has funded programs to fight hunger in the three nations, but it’s clear the NGO is armed with little more than a slingshot to confront the rising assault of global hunger. Organizations like Oxfam can only do so much: If the world’s largest food companies truly want to meet the moment and become the global citizens that they claim to be, it is past time to ramp up their anti-hunger efforts. The tactics could include distributing food to those who need it most, lobbying their governments to cancel poorer nations’ debts or funding sustainable agriculture programs.
This is about more than checking a box or blunting global hunger – it’s simply a pragmatic move to secure food companies' supply chains, and global consumer base, for the long haul.
Image credit: Stephanie Liao/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.