World Population Day: How the Virus Infects Our Food Systems

Ho, Lucy. “World Population Day .” Cook&Culture, June 2021.

Throughout the world, July 11th is celebrated as World Population Day, a day that focuses on the growing population and the issues that may come with it. [1] The COVID-19 pandemic has affected many aspects of the world we live in, and population is yet another arena. To celebrate this year’s World Population Day, we at Cook & Culture want to focus on how the pandemic has affected our population and its impact on our food systems.

Population Before the Pandemic

In the pre-Covid world,  the population in the United States was already on a decline. The growth rate of the population between the years 2010-2019 had been the lowest it had been in 100 years. Deaths had exceeded births in about 46 percent of all U.S counties. (2 According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2017, along with lower fertility rates, life expectancy was also increasing. This meant that we would have more elders in the world and fewer children to replace them in the workforce. 

Birth Rates vs. Death Rates

What may come as a shock is that the pandemic would have more of an impact on birth rates compared to the death rates. The number of deaths from the pandemic was climbing at an alarming rate. However, the truth of the matter is that the deaths caused by coronavirus are only responsible for 0.03 percent of the world’s population.  With pandemics, there is usually a fall in the rate of births; and with clouds of uncertainty looming over the future along with the shift in financial security, it’s no surprise that many people are choosing not to have children. According to James Pomeroy, a global economist, the world’s population was estimated to shrink by the 2060s, but this could be pushed a decade earlier because of the pandemic.  Economic damage and the resultant family-planning options could keep the “bounce-back” or replenishing of the population after COVID-19 from happening. (3) To restore our population numbers, every woman would have to give birth to at least two children. We are already under the desired ratio. The “one woman to every two children” is not being met. 

Immigration

According to Esther M. Friedman, a behavioral and social scientist and professor at Pardee RAND graduate school, and Andrew Parker, senior behavioral and social scientist and faculty member at Pardee RAND graduate school, international migrants make up 3.5 percent of the global population. More people live in countries that they were not born in than ever before. In 2019, there were 272 million international migrants, but once again, the pandemic has changed that.  During World Population Day, there is also a discussion of increases and decreases in immigration rates. Due to the pandemic, many people lost their jobs, and migrants were no exception. At the beginning of the pandemic, many migrants were forced to go back to their home countries due to the closing of borders. This return migration was also a  consequence of the fall of employment rates.  The United Nations had estimated that the pandemic will slow the rate of migration by around two million by mid-2020. This would mean it would be 27 percent less than estimated before. (4

Food Systems Pre-Pandemic

Actors in our global food system, placed in a cycle of input, production, distribution, retailing, production & consumption, and resource & waste recovery, all supported by civil society, technology, the public sector, finance, and energy

Eliaz, Shay, and Lily Murphy. “Actors in the Global Food System.” Deloitte.com, 2020, www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/Consumer-Business/gx-cb-a-shock-to-the-food-system.pdf.

Before we shed light on how this pandemic and the slowly growing population will affect our food systems, let’s discuss what our food systems looked like before the pandemic.  The United Nations describe food systems as “the inputs, production, transport, processing and manufacturing industries, retailing, and consumption of food as well as its impacts on environment, health, and society” (5). 

The “Triple Challenge”

Food systems before the pandemic were faced with a “triple challenge”. This “triple challenge”, according to the OECD, includes “simultaneously providing food security and nutrition to a growing global population, ensuring the livelihoods of millions of people working along the food chain from farm to fork, and ensuring the environmental sustainability of the sector”.  Every World Population Day, those who work on food systems try to tackle this challenge. They tried to solve this challenge by adding engineering methods to our farming. These methods allowed for more efficient farming including more crops being harvested. This helped amplify the ability to feed more people, for example, our food was becoming cheaper, had a higher caloric intake and protein intake which increased life expectancy across the population (6).

Food Systems and Livelihoods

Our food systems provide us with everyday sustenance. It helps us stay energized and have the ability to get through our days and live our lives to the fullest. They are crucial in so many ways, but one thing often forgotten is how they provide a livelihood to many people.  The livelihoods of 4.5 billion people globally are affected by our food systems. The unfortunate thing is the workers who labour to feed the rest of the world are the ones that are suffering from poverty and hunger. 

Women in our Food Systems

Three women farmers holding green bananas

37 percent of the world’s rural agriculture employment comprises of women, and in low-income countries, this number rises to 48 percent. These women who work in food systems face many challenges, including having “disadvantages in access to productive assets, inputs and services, including land, livestock, labour, education and extension and financial services”. (7 There are also new technologies being developed in the agricultural sector to help the workers. While these technologies will hopefully help farmers produce more and make their lives easier, it is important to ensure that they are sustainable and available to women.

Problems in Our Food Systems

As all things do, there were many negatives to this more “efficient” way of farming. Although we were working towards a more sustainable food system, our food system before the pandemic had some problems. Issues like these are recognized during World Population Day.  The food we were producing was not very nutrient-dense and led to obesity among many sections of society, despite there being undernourished populations across the country and the world at large. We were also overusing pesticides and antimicrobials, which led to antibiotic-resistant pests and pathogens.  There were many things to be fixed in this particular food system. There needed to be a change in how we were producing, processing, distributing and consuming our food. Then the pandemic hit. And now we have an even better opportunity to make a difference with the food system we have. 

The Pandemic’s Effect on Our Food Systems

Woman in a medical mask stands behind a sign declaring the business closed due to COVID-19

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a mandated lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This led to businesses being forced to shut down, and many regulations were put in place on our food systems as a preventative way to stop the spread of the disease.  Lockdown also directly impacted the number of farm laborers as these regulations affected the production of food. Outbreaks among many industry workers led to the closure of many food processing plants resulting in a fall in food production. Due to closures of hotels, restaurants, food banks and other places where food was provided, there was a reduction in supply even though the demand was high among people who could not get food anywhere else. (8)

International Trading

International food trade has become increasingly slow because of the pandemic. Additionally,  new regulations on trade have made the process more expensive.  Some governments have changed their food trading policies by moving toward a more restrictive export system and facilitating imports. These changes in food trading policies usually maintain the number of goods in the domestic market. Even though food trade among borders has changed significantly, the amount of trade has remained high. (8

Food Security

A woman in a mask and gloves holds a cardboard box of milk, pasta, and fresh produce,

Food security was also largely affected by the pandemic. Before the pandemic, there were declining rates of food security, but with the economic recession because of the pandemic, the declining rates of food security ended. Instead, they began to increase again.  Feeding America projects that 42 million people, including 13 million children, will be food insecure in 2021 But there was some light in the darkness. Many people came together in 2020 to ensure their neighbors were fed. Feeding America says that they served 6.1 billion meals during 2020, a 44% increase from 2019, because of food bankers, volunteers and partner agencies. (9 Another organization that I, personally, had been part of during the pandemic was the nonprofit Rice N Beans. In the midst of this pandemic, this organization has continued to provide hot meals to many people in and around the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, who are in need. Rice N Beans has been doing this since July 2011, and in 2019 they started serving breakfast to over 250 students in Roatan, Honduras.  Although there was a crisis, many came together to take care of one another. Feeding America and Rice N Beans are only a couple of organizations out of many that helped support those who needed it, were underfed and undernourished. Others include The Marcus Harris Foundation’s Neighborhood Express and Black Urban Growers

Future of Food Systems

For the future of our food systems, we have to figure out a way to provide healthy, affordable and nutritious food for the growing population, and provide livable working conditions for those that are the backbone of the producing, processing and distributing parts of our food systems.  We also need to consider the global use of water and land when producing our food and the use of greenhouse emissions. All of this while keeping in mind the “triple challenge” mentioned before.

Playing Our Part

The world’s population is growing, even if it is growing at a slower rate because of the pandemic. We knew we had to make a change to our food systems before COVID-19 hit us, and it’s even more evident now with how the pandemic highlighted the faults in our food systems.  The pandemic showed us that we need a better system overall to take care of our neighbors who are in need and our workers who aid in the flow of our food systems.  COVID-19 came into our world and jumbled everything out of order, but it also gave us an opportunity to improve our food systems, so we can create a more sustainable world for us and our future generations.

Join in the fight to end the pandemic by participating in acts to slow the spread. On July 11th, World Population Day, help bring awareness to issues like these and join in with others who are helping those who don’t have access to food right now. You can partner with organizations like Feeding America and non-profits like Rice N Beans to help them in their goals. Through these small acts of kindness, we can make an incredible impact on those around us.

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