Food—and access to it—is the great unequalizer. When a recession, such as the one currently sweeping the globe, strikes, too often people cannot afford food. Worse, the food that they can afford is often the least healthy.
The trends are not encouraging. Since 2015 conflict, climate shock and economic downturn have caused the number of hungry people to tick upwards worldwide. Yet inequality lies at the heart of the problem: there is ample food for everyone—it is just that not everyone can afford it. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to accelerate this inequality and, by extension, make food even more unaffordable for large segments of the world’s population.
In countries both rich and poor, lack of money is the most serious impediment to accessing healthier foods. More than 3 billion people in the world cannot afford healthy diets, which cost an average of five times more than those that simply meet energy requirements, such as starchy staples, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, a joint UN report published this year.
The more unaffordable that fruit and vegetables are, the greater the prevalence not only of undernourishment and stunted growth among children, but also of overweight and obesity. For example, in the US the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered poor minority communities’ ability to obtain healthy foods. These communities are already deeply affected by diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. It is a vicious cycle.
To stave off lasting damage to health, countries must offset the soaring costs of healthy foods. This is especially true in regions such as Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the majority of the world’s hungriest people live, and where COVID-19 has wiped out sources of income including tourism, remittances and oil exports.
Nutritious foods are more expensive because they have higher production risks and lower levels of productivity than staples. Many small producers with limited access to technology and capital cannot afford to take the risk on producing them. Fruits and vegetables are also more perishable, making them more difficult to transport across the food supply chain, especially if road conditions are poor and food storage facilities are inadequate, as is the case in many countries of the Global South.
Protectionary trade measures such as import tariffs and subsidy programs make it more profitable for farmers to produce rice or corn than fruits and vegetables. For example, East African countries impose steep import tariffs on rice, which protects farmers from cheaper rice imports. The same is true for poultry producers in Latin America and the Caribbean. But such protectionism also keeps the price of poultry high, making it difficult for poor consumers to afford. According to data from Tufts University, removing trade protection across Central America would reduce the cost of nutritious diets by as much as 9% on average. In addition, fewer stores in poor rural communities carry highly perishable but nutritious foods, and traveling to markets that do carry healthy foods is too expensive.
Fortunately, these are not insurmountable obstacles. Governments can align incentives to subsidize high-value products instead of basic staples. They can encourage private-sector investment in healthy diets. They can lower taxes on nutritious foods and improve transportation to make it easier for people to access markets. But all of these things are easier said than done. Many African countries, for example, continue to spend huge sums on input subsidies instead of investing in sorely needed infrastructure or transportation, as subsidies are a tangible benefit for a large electoral base.
Making healthy foods affordable requires giving people more purchasing power. During recession, countries can generate employment through public works, as well as provide cash transfers and nutrition-sensitive social safety nets. In El Salvador, where income inequality means that a large proportion of the population lack access to healthy diets owing, the state has created food supplements for mothers and children, alongside robust school feeding programs, which in some countries are often the only source of nutrition for children.
There is a financial case for making healthy foods cheaper, too. The healthcare cost of non-communicable diseases and mortality associated with poor diets could exceed $1.3 trillion annually by 2030. And the unaccounted negative impacts of food production and consumption—the hidden costs of food—do not stop at staggeringly high health costs. Agriculture generates one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. Without action, the social cost of carbon will soar, clocking in around $1.7 trillion annually by 2030.
A shift toward healthy diets could reduce direct and indirect health costs by up to 97%, as well as slashing the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions by between 41% and 74% in 2030. Put simply, healthy diets lead to lower hidden costs than current diets. These savings can then be redistributed towards making nutritious foods more affordable for everyone.
To be sure, healthy diets are not a panacea that will save people or the planet tomorrow. In fact, in low-income countries with high levels of malnutrition, meeting nutritional targets should take priority over reducing carbon footprints. For example, in Indonesia, where stunted growth affects more than a third of children under five and a quarter of all adults are overweight or obese, a switch to a healthy diet would result in a 15% uptick in carbon emissions due to the environmental cost of feeding more people.
There are also other tradeoffs to consider. If a country’s economy is dependent on agriculture, for example, a switch in dietary patterns could result in losses of livelihoods for rural populations.
The coronavirus pandemic may push 83 million -132 million more people into hunger this year. Only by making healthy food affordable can the world avoid a humanitarian crisis whose harmful effects could outlast those of the current pandemic.