Comment: Mars Inc’s Dave Crean calls for greater public-private collaboration to eradicate hunger by ensuring open access to safe food for all far beyond the pandemic

Hunger and Covid-19 are a deadly combination. At the start of the pandemic many of us may have experienced empty supermarket shelves, but being unable to stock-up on tinned foods and toilet roll was thankfully a temporary inconvenience; for most of us it wasn’t an issue of life and death. Extreme hunger, though, is another of the potential deadly outcomes of this global pandemic for up to 265 million people this year, twice the number who were already suffering from acute hunger before the spread of Covid-19.

Food insecurity has for too long been stalking the developing world, with devastating consequences. Yet, since the virus took hold globally, 130 million more people may face extreme hunger this year, according to a recent study by the World Food Programme.

Unicef estimates this virus-linked hunger will claim the lives of an additional 10,000 children every month this year. 

With an increasingly complex global food supply chain, maintaining food safety and security is an issue that transcends borders

Due to the myriad of Covid-related impacts – from loss of income to disrupted food chains – people in lower- and middle-income groups in developed countries are also finding themselves without enough food. More than 40% of mothers with children under the age of 12 in the United States said that they have experienced food insecurity since the Covid-19 crisis began, according to a survey co-conducted by the Hamilton Project

With an increasingly complex global food supply chain, maintaining food safety and security is a complicated issue that transcends borders. Yet, as Covid-19 is leading to reinforced borders and lockdowns, bottlenecks are forming in the food system and a shift towards a more inward-looking self-reliance is emerging among nations.

At times like this it is crucial that the world’s resources are more efficiently used by ensuring there’s open access to them; as soon as barriers are implemented this creates artificial shortages in some places and waste in others, thus destabilising food systems, which impacts everybody. When a lack of quality food storage combines with a breakdown in global logistics it creates a complex situation where food cannot be transported from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. It can then spoil and may no longer be safe.

The WFP's Covid-19 response delivers emergency food and health equipment. (Credit: World Food Programme)

There are both acute and longer-term impacts of this, too. For example, a lack of safe storage has a direct impact on the ability of fungi, some of which produce very potent toxins such as aflatoxin, to contaminate foods. This can have a big impact on the food chain through contaminated foods being unfit for export or consumption. These toxins are the cause of more than 25% of liver cancer cases globally.

Covid-19 necessitates an even greater need for global collaboration and partnerships to help alleviate this growing food crisis.

One of the beacons of hope we have seen through this crisis is the unprecedented level of public-private collaboration and information sharing around the world in pursuit of solutions to Covid-19 – engineering firms switching production lines to make ventilators for hospitals, pharmaceuticals partnering with academic institutions in the search for a vaccine, high-street restaurant outlets feeding frontline workers. We need to drive a similar level of public-private collaboration in order to build resilience and create a sustainable food supply chain in the future.

A global, collaborative mindset is what will help pull millions of people back from the brink of starvation

At Mars, we believe that everyone has the right to safe food. We also believe that industry has a critical role to play in addressing global food safety challenges impacting the food supply chain. But no single organisation can tackle these alone – collaboration is critical. That’s why we opened the Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC) in 2015, focused on research, training and collaboration. For several years – well before the pandemic – the World Food Programme (WFP) and Mars have been working together, sharing experience and expertise, in the joint pursuit of safe food for all.

The WFP has extensive experience delivering supplies to those in most need, and together we have exchanged knowledge about safe sourcing of food, what it takes for great quality storage and have supported in crisis management. In addition, Mars donated $2m to support the World Food Programme’s Covid-19 response, which serves as the backbone of global efforts to transport and deliver emergency food and life-saving humanitarian and health equipment to hospitals and healthcare workers responding to the pandemic. Never have partnerships such as this been more critical.

The lives of millions of people are at risk due to food scarcity, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. We need to resist the urge to simply protect our own. A global, collaborative mindset is what will help pull millions of people back from the brink of starvation. There is no food security without food safety, and in a world where the food supply chain has become even more complex, anything impacting the ability for people to access safe food may have negative effects on public health, trade, and the economy. 

Innovation often follows significant adversity. We encourage those in our industry with food safety knowledge and insights to share this invaluable information and collaborate with inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations. This moment is too important to miss. We must do more together to raise the bar for food safety and help ensure safe food for all during this crisis, and beyond. We urge those who can help to act now.

Dave Crean is Vice President of Corporate R&D and Chief Science Officer at Mars Incorporated.    

Main picture credit: Mars                      
Coronavirus  pandemic  World Food Programme  Unicef  food security 

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