A Top Economist Explains Why Pandemic Leads to Hunger, and the Food Systems Change That Could Prevent it From Happening Again.

Photo: WFP/Alice Rahmoun
World Food Program USA
Published June 11, 2020
Last Updated December 19, 2020

When it comes to ending global hunger, policy plays a powerful role. It shapes the operation and strategy of humanitarian organizations and influences their ability to make an impact. Smart policies enable WFP, for example, to reach even more people with the lifesaving support they need.
That’s why organizations like International Food Policy Research Institute – known as IFPRI – are critical to advancing the fight against hunger. IFPRI provides research-based policy solutions to sustainably reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. Its solutions have influenced government and NGO policies across the globe.
As COVID-19 threatens to increase rates of global hunger and poverty, IFPRI’s insights are more critical than ever as governments desperately seek to lessen the virus’ economic impact.
On today’s episode of Hacking Hunger, we caught up with Johan Swinnen, IFPRI’s director general, to get the inside scoop on his predictions of the virus’ impacts, challenges and potential effects, and solutions that might protect vulnerable people from it now and in the future.


World Food Program USA: Johan, thanks for joining us today. Could you give us a brief background on IFPRI?

Johan: Sure. At IFPRI, our objective is to provide research-based policy solutions to sustainably reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. So, we do research to provide to get evidence and suggest solutions, and that evidence then goes into policy advice that is used by international organizations, donors and governments – national and local.

Johan Swinnen

World Food Program USA: What role is IFPRI playing in the COVID-19 crisis and have your priorities changed at all since it’s hit?

Johan: COVID-19 has impacted IFPRI’s work in many ways, but the most obvious of them is that we’ve shifted our focus to studying the potential impacts of the virus. We started this very early on, because we have staff in China who began analyzing the virus when it was solely there. Since then, we’ve continued and broadened our research and have reported our findings in original publications and analyses. In that way, IFPRI has taken global leadership in this field. We hope to do even more in the months ahead.

World Food Program USA: When it comes to economic impacts, we know this pandemic will hurt vulnerable people the most. WFP is projecting that the number of severely hungry people across the globe will double by the end of the year from COVID. Why is that? And have you seen any research affirming these impacts?

Johan: It’s clear that developing countries are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and there are number of reasons for that.

The first is that in many of these countries, people earn a living through physical labor. They work with their hands – they can’t work from home with their computer like many of us. That means that they are more likely to become unemployed from COVID restrictions. It’s also true that poor people spend a much larger share of their income on food, which means their food security is strongly affected.

Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

A farmer in South Sudan works his field, which he depends on to eat.

Our estimates are that with every percentage of economic slowdown globally, the number of people living in poverty increases by 10-20 million. So, we are now seeing a decline of 5-6 percent, which means that we’re talking about 150 million going into extreme poverty.

As far as research that we’ve seen; that’s a good question. There’s been some very interesting material coming out in the last couple of weeks. My Stanford colleague, Scott Rozelle, did some early research in which he estimated that the lockdown in China would result in an income loss of $100 billion for people who live in the countryside and can no longer commute to the cities. So, all of a sudden, formerly stable families have no income and are facing poverty.

World Food Program USA: What about supply chains? Every country depends on supply chains for their food and this crisis is causing major disruptions. How are these disruptions affecting developed and developing countries differently?

Johan: In both developed and developing countries, supply chains are being disrupted because COVID-19 is affecting the use of labor – either because people get sick or because of the policies that prevent them from getting sick. Basically, that means that food supply chains are vulnerable to the extent that a part of their supply chains depend on labor.

Like we mentioned before, typically, poor countries are more dependent on labor. Developed countries have more automation. Even so, we’re seeing issues in developed countries too. Many depend on migrant workers who can no longer travel to harvest fruit, and in the U.S., meat processing is delayed because so many workers got sick.

Photo: WFP/Karen Prinsloo

A man hauls food onto a ship in Somalia.

COVID-19 threatens a very significant shortage in production for next year, too. It’s hard to see how this will all evolve, but already companies are thinking of innovative ways to re-engineer the food system to work better in this environment – because they need to. People are being very creative, not just in big corporations, but small retailers, medium-sized traders, etc. Because they know that to survive, they must innovate and become more resilient.

World Food Program USA: Have you seen any of those innovations yet? What are some of these companies or farmers doing to get around disruptions?

Johan: A lot of organizations are looking at re-working their systems so that they keep workers healthier and require less physical interaction. We’re actually seeing that internet use among poor families has shot up, because a number of NGO and private-sector organizations are investing to make this possible. So, all of a sudden, families don’t need to go to the market to purchase their food.

In fact, I just heard a presentation on how FAO is setting up systems in some of the poorest parts of Africa that allow payments or wages to be sent to people’s homes via mobile phone. This helps protect people as they no longer need to venture out to receive their checks.

Photo: WFP/Ismail Taxta

Aisha Osman Abdi (21) uses her mobile phone to order food from an online E-shop at a WFP food distribution center in Ethiopia.

That’s just one example. There’s a lot of innovation going on. If we look back on this in five- or 10-years’ time, we’ll see this as a transformative moment. Many of these are changes companies were thinking of implementing at some point but are forced to do so now because it’s the only way to move forward, to survive. So, these changes are happening a lot faster than they ever imagined.

World Food Program USA: IFPRI recently released its 2020 Global Food Policy Report, which highlights the importance of building inclusive food systems. Can you tell us what inclusive food systems are, and how can they protect the vulnerable from crises like the one we’re currently experiencing?

Johan: The words “food system” can mean a lot of different things. But essentially, it means looking at not just the farmers who farm food or the consumers who consume it, but the whole network of elements surrounding it. Part of it is public sector, like food subsidies, and part of it is private sector, like the processors and retailers, etc. It’s crucial we look at these assets as a system rather than analyzing them each in isolation.

Photo: WFP/Denniz Akkus

A Syrian refugee shops at a market in Turkey.

Now, inclusiveness refers to the fact that some of these systems, value chains, for example, benefit some participants a lot and don’t allow others to benefit at all. For example, if you have a very concentrated processing or trading sector, it’s sometimes difficult for small-scale farmers to benefit and vice versa on the consumer side. To move forward, it’s important that we boost private-sector initiatives and public policies that make this possible. In addition to benefiting everyone, it will also make our food systems more resilient and sustainable.

This crisis provides an opportunity for us to seek systems where these three things – inclusive benefits, resilience and sustainability – can come together.

World Food Program USA: It seems there is a lot of potential for lessening the impacts of crises like these in the future. But have you seen any research that demonstrates the possibility that we could still reduce the economic impacts from this current pandemic?

Johan: We have very little data on that; what we have is more anecdotal evidence and stories. But I do know that some parts of the system have held up better than expected in this crisis.

For example, we have we have a new study coming out on the big cities in India, where there is a lot of poverty. We expected that the more modern parts of the food system there would hold up better through this crisis, but we’re finding that it’s actually the informal part of the system, like the traditional retail system, that has somehow done better. And I think this is because people are finding creative ways to develop solutions because it’s kind of life or death for them.

Photo: WFP/James Giambrone

Sellers and vendor at a market in Jharkand, India

It’s hard to say whether these findings represent a broader part of the system or just a minor one. Either way, it’s important for us to look at these examples – not just to give us hope – but to learn from them. By studying how some communities are overcoming the challenges this pandemic presents, perhaps we can use them as models to help other cases, countries or parts of the food system to become more resilient as well.

Crises like this force us to re-examine our ways, adapt and change. What’s happening in the world right now is tragic, but I’m hopeful positive change will come out it that will make us more resilient in the future.