Big agricultural, food and beverage firms making vast profits despite the negative impact of Covid-19 pandemic on the sector are being urged to invest portions of their revenues in supporting the world’s most hungry people. 

The call comes as a report themed; “The Hunger Virus: How COVID-19 is fueling hunger in a hungry world”  published by Oxfam International warned that by December 2020, more people will be dying from COVID-19 related hunger than the virus itself.

The organization projects that deaths per day from COVID-19 induced hunger could reach up to 12,000 people if nothing is done drastically to deal with the world’s food security challenges.

The report says despite the worsening food insecurity situation worldwide as the pandemic spreads, since January 2020, eight of the biggest food and drink companies across the world have paid shareholders over US$18 billion in dividends.

The figure is said to be about 10 times more than the money the United Nations (UN) says it needs to stop people from going hungry. The UN in April made an appeal for US$2 billion to help vulnerable populations deal with COVID-19 related food security challenges.

“This is the problem some of us have had with unregulated capitalism. As much as we seek to promote business interests, that should be guided by a high sense of moral duty.

"It is very unthinkable to that business owners and shareholders are reaping so much from the unfortunate scores visited on citizens, farmers and poor people by COVID-19,” George Osei Bimpeh who is Country Director of SEND Ghana, a civil society organization working to reduce inequalities among poor households, observed.

“We need to appeal to the moral conscience of business owners; especially those that derive their existence from agriculture to basically look at the issue of profit sharing. Not in the context of shareholder interest.

"But in the context of interest of farmers. In this case, the windfall profits accruing to large firms must go back to farming communities where they derive their raw materials from,” he said.  

The report expresses concern about “worrying signs that some companies are using the pandemic to take advantage of consumers.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO’s) Food Price Index which tracks the average price supermarkets and other retailers buy basic goods from farmers has on the average fallen steadily since January 2020.

However, the report observes consumer prices are going up in many countries as a result of disruption to local production and supply chains, inflation and panic buying.

For example, in the USA, consumer prices increased by 36% on average but farm income fell. Powerful and dominant agricultural traders, food and beverage corporations, as well as supermarkets which dictate the price and terms of food trade are focusing on maximizing profits by paying producers who shoulder most of the risk associated with food production “poverty wages.”

Bimpeh calls for strengthening of agricultural systems in rural areas through investment from the windfall profits being made by the big ag firms.

He says these monies must go into strengthening local social protection initiatives that government and humanitarian organizations have running currently.

He also urges the big ag firms to target farmers and the poor directly with the support.

“Most of these farmers work through cooperative systems. They can easily be identified. Even where cooperative unions do not exist, farmers can easily be identified in the rural communities and the most impoverished parts of the agrarian economy for support,” he said.

The report says inequality across the globe has reached extreme levels. While nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $5.50 a day, the world’s 2,200 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people combined.

The report says the pandemic is exploiting and exacerbating these inequalities, as the poorest people are most impacted by loss of jobs and income.

“These inequalities trap millions in poverty and hunger. With the poorest families whose spending on food totals as much as half of their income, even the smallest increase in food prices or drop in income can cause them to skip meals or to eat less nutritious food,” the report observes.

These huge inequalities mean small-scale farmers (who produce more than 70% of food in Asia and sub - Saharan Africa), as well as the more than 1.7 billion workers on farms, plantations, fishing boats and in processing factories are unable to produce enough food or earn enough income to escape hunger and poverty.

Bimpeh is pushing for the establishment of “a strong linkage between agricultural production and social protection programming so we can devote resources to spending on agriculture in a way that will alleviate the suffering that majority of rural poor farmers have had to go through.”

“The corporate world must heed this call, not just as a cooperate social responsibility, but to live up to a moral duty that is required of them now more than ever before,” he added.

Wiledio Naboho who is a farmer in Burkina Faso is urging corporate entities to remember their businesses will not survive if rural farmers do not outlive COVID-19.

“We depend on each other. Without us, businesses can't survive. Their raw materials are coming from farmers. They can fund a lot of farmers’ projects.

"They should fund farmer projects like access to mechanisation like tractors. They can support farmers by facilitating our access to funds from banks,” he explained.  

Worsening hunger worldwide

The report warns 121 million more people - majority of whom are rural, poor farmers - could be pushed to the brink of starvation this year as COVID-19 disrupts the food supply chain and causes widespread unemployment whilst humanitarian aid declines.

The report identifies the West African Sahel region, Yemen, Venezuela, South Sudan and 6 other countries/regions most at risk of hunger because of COVID-19. Over the last 11 years, the Sahel region of West Africa consisting - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal - has had the fastest growing hunger crisis in the world.

About 13.4 million people were estimated to be in immediate need of food assistance across the region between March and May 2020.

Now, the situation is worsening. The closure of borders has caused sharp increases in the price of imported food and agricultural products across the region, with Mali seeing prices increase by 10% on average, and Nigeria seeing increases of 30%.

“Millions are already struggling to eat even once a day, and many more are relying on very volatile incomes. Women, who often go without food so they can feed their children, are at particular risk,” the report observed.

Naboho is living these challenges firsthand in his country Burkina Faso. “Really, COVID-19 has impacted us as farmer negatively. First, its limited access to quality seeds.

And also, the few we have is sold at a high price. Secondly, access to food is limited because of lockdown. In our case last year, we didn't get enough yield because of lack of rain and some plant diseases,” he said.

“So, COVID1-9 came to add more sorrow to my people. I can tell a lot of families don't have food to feed themselves. COVID-19 somehow has revealed the weaknesses of our government on food security,” Naboho added.  

The report says governments in lower-income countries have failed to invest in agriculture and the rural economy over the years, leaving small-scale producers without the infrastructure, information, or technology they need to access markets, improve productivity, and adapt to an increasingly hostile climate.

For example, over the four year period between 2014 and 2018, only eight African countries adhered to recommendations of the African Union and consistently spent more than 10% of their budget on agriculture.

More than 40 countries spent far less. And in times of low financial investments, large-scale agribusiness are often prioritised, while investments in small-scale producers are woefully neglected.

Chairman of the West Africa Chamber of Agribusiness Anthony Morrison wants rural farmers organized into stronger associations so they can demand their due.

“How organized are the players in the rural agricultural sector? They have to be stronger cooperatives so they can play roles in policy design, formulation and implementation,” he observed.

“We should also see an increase in existing subsidies so pro-poor beneficiaries can have access,” he added.

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