Saturday, April 25, 2020

Do You Want Fries with Your Pandemic? Global Famine on the Heels of COVID-19

It seems we've entered into a phase where we just can't catch a break. A month or so ago, I read an article where parts of the Middle East were being affected by locust swarms of biblical proportions. California, as everyone knows, was hit by a series of massive wildfires, which were, in part, the result of faulty power lines belonging to PG&E while others were intentionally, as was Australia. Globally, there has been a series of volcanic eruptions and upticks of earthquakes, especially in South America and Asia along the so-called "ring of fire", which is an area with the most active volcanoes along the Pacific Rim.

Of course, we've been locked into a debate for over a decade as to whether we are experiencing climate warming which, if true, could have catastrophic consequences on the planet for decades or centuries to come. Meanwhile, others argue that there is no proof of global warming. What changes that are taking place are ordinary changes like the Earth has been experiencing for thousands or millions of years. A sizeable minority maintain that there are no changes happening whatsoever, and then there are those who even claim we may actually be entering a brief period of global cooling!

Nowadays, we facing a pandemic which some experts say could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. Fortunately, no one is predicting that the current flu-like virus will have the same numbers of the 1918 Spanish Flu which killed an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide (that's more than who died during World War One) while infecting at least 500 million.

As an aside, Ebola, which isn't a respiratory disease like MERS, the Bird Flu, or COVID-19, has killed approximately 11,300 people and infected some 28,000 (mostly in Africa) according to the World Health Organization (WHO) as of 2016. Meanwhile, the AIDS pandemic, which began around 1981 and continues today has caused 35 million deaths. The Swine Flu of 2009/2010 infected 1.4 billion people according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). While the exact number of deaths are unknown, the CDC estimated that somewhere between 151,700 and 575,400 people died from complications resulting from the Swine Flu. MERS killed around 100 people and the Bird Flu killed approximately 400.

Now, the corporate media is starting to report that as result of the business closures triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting global economic decline in trade, food production and distribution may become affected. If this occurs, these same news outlets are predicting that there could be a food shortage worldwide, which could become severe or catastrophic in some places.

I'm sure most of us have heard about dairy farmers having to throw out thousands of gallons of milk while produce farmers are allowing equal amounts crops to rot in the field, yet the demand for food in food banks, homeless shelters, and other facilities which cater to those who are food insecure has dramatically increased thanks to the virus situation. Why are we allowing all this to go to waste? Before we address that question, let's look at the food situation globally and nationally first, and who are the most vulnerable.

According to the United Nations, approximately 812 million people do not get enough food to meet basic nutritional needs. That's roughly one in nine individuals globally who go to sleep at night hungry. Asia is the worst affected, followed by Africa (mainly the Sub-Saharan region). Poor nutrition is listed as the prime cause of death among 45% of all children under five years of age. That's about 3.1 million children. One in four are stunted while one in six are underweight. 66 million children globally go to school hungry.

In addition, the lack of proper nutrition also affects their mental development. It also leaves them with a weakened immune system and chronically poor health which often affects them for life. This also affects prenatal women who are typically undernourished in these regions as well. An interesting side note, due to religious and cultural traditions, women are often not permitted birth control. Incidentally, women farmers are not allowed the same resources as the men when it comes to farming for the same reasons. If they were, an estimated 150 million additional people could be fed annually.

In the United States, the "land of plenty", nearly 38 million people live in poverty. An estimated 78% of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck according to a survey done by CareerBuilder in 2019. Three in four are in debt and expect to remain in debt. 45% of Americans have no savings or money set aside for emergencies (72% have less than $1000 set aside). An average of 25% of workers have no money put aside toward retirement. Credit card debt alone in this country is a one trillion dollar issue.

Of the 38 million people living in poverty, 37 million are "food insecure" which is a polite euphemism for not knowing where or when their next meal is coming from. Of this number, 11 million are children. 12.3% are considered the "working poor". 60% of seniors routinely have to decide between food, medicine, and expenses every month. The majority depend on some form of outside assistance such as a food bank, shelter, church, or similar organization. The children of those in poverty depend on school provided meals. Often it's the only meal they can actually count on.

With the COVID-19 pandemic upon us, it only compounds the situation. People aren't working and unemployment will only get you so far, even with small extra government provided "perks" such as the stimulus checks. Meanwhile, with people not working and businesses idle, no revenue is being produced, which means no taxes being generated to keep governments functioning. Yes, governments and businesses can borrow money, but that's just delaying the inevitable (plus the added interest). The result is an economy slowing down and the likely advent of a recession the longer we remain in quarantine, which brings us back to the topic of hunger.

In the best of times, global famine remains a serious issue. With this pandemic, it's only going to get worse. While in most countries, especially the highly industrialized nations, such as Russia, Germany, South Korea, Japan, France, or the UK, it's doubtful it will come to that. However, getting food is becoming an increasing problem, especially in the poorer countries, but also here at home.

There are already growing reports of people lining up in line for hours to get basic food packages only to find out that they "just" ran out. Food banks, as I said earlier, are reporting a significant increase in demand. So, why are there crops in the field being allowed to rot while thousands of gallons of milk go down the drain literally?

Dawn Thilmany, an agricultural economist from Colorado State University, said that normally 50% of all food produced go to commercial use (restaurants, institutions, etc). Because of the quarantine, 75% of that business is gone. The remainder is what's being picked up by the drive-thru and home delivery businesses still open and by institutions who buy in bulk.

In addition, farmers have to cope with the ban prohibiting ten or more individuals gathering out of fear of spreading the virus. A typical farming operation can involve dozens of people. There is also the freshness issue. As general rule, crops will remain fresh for just two weeks (not to mention eggs). Even if they could harvest the crops, food banks, churches, and other organizations which feed the poor couldn't afford the cost the farmers would have to charge just to cover their labor costs, let along make even a small profit. Unfortunately, it's cheaper to let the crops rot in the field, at least in the short run.

The quarantine issue and worker safety is also at the heart of several meat processing and packing plants being shut down. So, that means that animals normally sent to slaughter will get a short reprieve. However, that also means they will continue to have to be fed and cared for. That costs money, and with no money coming in from the sale of the cows, pigs, chicken, and fish, it presents a serious financial problem.

Another agricultural economist, Andrew Novakovic of Cornell University, said that typically the dairy industry loses approximately. 0.3% of product as a result of fluctuating demand. However, because of the COVID-19 virus and the shutdowns (such as schools), demand is down around 15%. As a result dairy farmers are dumping upwards of 10% of the milk produced.

The reason is pretty much the same. There isn't as much demand for dairy based products such as cheese, butter, or sour cream. Therefore, less demand means less production. However, since the "production" is coming from cows rather than production lines, it's simply dumped. Meanwhile, the cows can't be laid off. They can't draw unemployment. That still have to be fed and milked, and that's money out of the farmer's pocket. The end result may be a selloff of dairy cattle and fewer dairy farms, which, in turn, will result in higher prices for dairy based products.

Farmers and meat producers don't, as a rule, make a whole lot of money. Most do pretty well, but it's the large commercial operations which dominate the market. They are the ones which can endure long shutdowns and absorb the costs. Farmers, meanwhile, are expected to lose around $688 million dollars in sales due to the shutdown. With those numbers, the average "mom and pop" or independent operation can't last, at least not for long.

The end result is that we may see significantly fewer independent operations. We'll also likely see higher prices due to the decline in the number of producers and the extra costs associated with the feeding and sheltering of all those pigs, chickens, and hamburgers on the hoof has cost which will be passed to the consumer.

So, we sit and wait. Maybe the government will step forward with a plan to save the small dairy farmer and meat producer similar President Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 which paid farmers a subsidy not to grow crops in order to dry up surpluses and increase prices, thus keeping more farmers in business. Then too, maybe farmers will allow people to come out and pick crops (like fruits and vegetables) rather than let it rot in the fields along the lines of the biblical notion of "second gleanings" (Leviticus 19:9). They could even let churches, food banks, the homeless to come out. At least it would feed some of the hungry.

Virus or not, there is no reason anyone in this country of ours should go hungry, be it in good times or bad. We should be thankful for those individuals who show up and stock the shelves, who work the drive-thru or making home deliveries, the truck drivers or those who are still on the job filling our prescriptions, along with all the nurses, doctors, police, EMS, firefighters, the postal workers, the men and women of the military, the garbage men, housekeeping, those making sure we have clean water and electricity, and of course, the farmers who make it possible for us to put food on the table. Want to know more? Check out our links below.

ISGlobal: Ebola: Two Years and 11,300 Deaths Later

20 of the worse epidemics and pandemics in history

Global hunger continues to rise , new UN report says

Why farmers are forced to let food rot during the shutdown while others go hungry

California farmers are forced to let crops rot and thrown away milk while food band demand soars

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