Will the CFS prevent the pending COVID-19 hunger crisis?

The UN Committee of World Food Security should lead the global response to the pandemic’s impact on the food system.

Chile hunger protests AP Photo
Demonstrators clash with the police during a protest demanding food aid from the government amid the coronavirus pandemic, in Santiago, Chile, May 18, 2020 [AP Photo/Esteban Felix]

All eyes have been on the World Health Organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus, however, has not only created a medical emergency, it has also brought the world to the edge of a hunger crisis. 

School closures everywhere mean that an increasing number of children across the world no longer have access to free school meals and are going hungry. Essential food workers in the fields, factories and markets, are being forced to put their health at risk because their employers are not providing safe workplaces and their governments are not providing adequate support during the pandemic.

Without healthy workers, we cannot have a stable supply of food. Parts of the food system are also a public health hazard. For example, meatpacking plants around the world have fostered the pandemic, spreading the virus to nearby communities. 

Where then should we look to find the political will and policy tools necessary to avoid a world hunger crisis?

The UN Committee of World Food Security (CFS) in Rome is best suited to shape the global response to the pandemic’s devastating effects on food security. Following its establishment in 1974, the CFS was a useless “talk shop” for decades. But it was revamped after the 2008 world food price crisis. Since then, the CFS has become the pre-eminent global venue where governments, international agencies, the private sector, and civil society coordinate their efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition. 

Today, however, it is not clear whether it will be able to adapt again and hold on to this important role.  

The CFS is in the process of deciding what it can do to stave off the hunger crisis. It is trying to determine how it can adapt itself to the post-pandemic world and what role it can play in the global coronavirus response.

Ultimately, it has two options: it will either just be a place where governments share national policy responses, or it will act as a forum that can foster global cooperation and coordinated action against COVID-19’s brutal effects. 

Not only is the CFS the most inclusive intergovernmental institution addressing global food policy, but it is one of the few such bodies that prioritise a human rights-based approach. Through the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM), vulnerable communities have an effective seat at the CFS table. The CSM is an autonomous space that allows different social movements, Indigenous peoples, labour unions, and advocacy organisations to work together and shape the CFS’s policies.

A human rights approach does not just mean protecting vulnerable people. A human rights approach means placing vulnerable communities at the centre of policy responses, ensuring that their demands are heard and addressed by governments, and granting them as much power as possible to determine their own future. 

Some governments are not willing to adopt a rights-based approach or coordinate their policies with others, and therefore reluctant to respond to the pandemic through the CFS. Because of this, there is a real chance that the CFS will slip back to being just a place where governments share information and do nothing.

If it is not allowed to facilitate an effective and broad response to the food crisis triggered by the pandemic, the CFS will lose its popular legitimacy. This would be a shame, as, without the CFS, the world will be left without a single space where all voices are heard and global food policy is enacted in the spirit of collaboration.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.