Nobel-winning UN food agency warns of 'hunger pandemic' worse than COVID

Pierre-Henry Deshayes, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 11 2020 06:30 AM

Nobel-winning UN food agency warns of 'hunger pandemic' worse than COVID 1
Residents living under the bridge in San Andres Manila wait for volunteers distributing relief beside a signage they put up along Osmeña Highway, Manila on April 27, 2020. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/File

OSLO, Norway - Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony held online because of the coronavirus, the World Food Program (WFP) warned Thursday of a "hunger pandemic" it said could be worse than COVID-19.

"Because of so many wars, climate change, the widespread use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and a global health pandemic that makes all of that exponentially worse, 270 million people are marching toward starvation," WFP executive director David Beasley said.

"Failure to address their needs will cause a hunger pandemic which will dwarf the impact of COVID," he said, removing his facemask to make his remarks broadcast from the WFP's headquarters in Rome.

The largest humanitarian organization fighting famine, the UN agency founded in 1961 feeds tens of millions of people each year -- 97 million in 2019 -- across all continents.

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The WFP was honored with the Nobel for its efforts "to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict", committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said when she announced the winner on October 9.

With nationalist tendencies taking hold across the globe, the WFP "represents exactly the kind of international cooperation and commitment that the world is in dire need of today," Reiss-Andersen said Thursday, speaking from a deserted Nobel Institute in Oslo.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Nobel officials to scale back the traditional festivities to a bare minimum, both in Oslo where the Peace Prize is announced and presented, and in Stockholm, which hosts the prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics.

Cancelations hit the lavish banquets and glittering ceremonies attended by distinguished guests and royals in tiaras, replaced by more austere events mostly online.

Because of the exceptional circumstances, the Nobel gold medal and diploma were sent to Rome in a diplomatic pouch.


"This Nobel Peace Prize is more than a thank you. It is a call to action," Beasley said.

"Famine is at humanity's doorstep", he said, and "food is the pathway to peace."

In recent weeks, the agency has expressed alarm about the risk of famine in Burkina Faso, South Sudan, northeastern Nigeria and Yemen.

Already at record levels, malnutrition in Yemen is expected to get even worse due to the pandemic and lack of funds.

"We stand at what may be the most ironic moment in modern history," Beasley said.

"On the one hand, after a century of massive strides in eliminating extreme poverty, today those 270 million of our neighbors are on the brink of starvation."

"On the other hand, there is $400 trillion of wealth in our world today. Even at the height of the COVID pandemic, in just 90 days, an additional $2.7 trillion of wealth was created. And we only need 5 billion dollars to save 30 million lives from famine," he added.

The usual Nobel festivities in Sweden were also canceled.

A ceremony was nonetheless held in Stockholm's City Hall on Thursday, decked out with red and pink flowers but void of a live audience and broadcast online instead.

Pre-recorded musical interludes were interspersed with speeches and footage from the past week of the other laureates receiving their awards in their countries of residence.

"The Nobel Prize shows humanity's ability to constantly find solutions to the difficult challenges we face. This year, when we are all deeply affected by the corona pandemic, it feels especially important to highlight scientific, literary and humanitarian efforts that inspire us and give us hope for the future," Nobel Foundation chairman Carl-Henrik Heldin said.


This year's laureates will be welcomed to Oslo and Stockholm at a later date, probably in 2021.

In order to receive the prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (975,000 euros, $1.18 million), Beasley must hold the traditional Nobel lecture within six months.

Saying he goes "to bed weeping over the children we could not save", Beasley concluded his remarks with a desperate appeal.

"When we don't have enough money and the access we need, we have to decide which children eat and which children do not eat, which children live, which children die," he said.

"Please don't ask us to choose who lives and who dies... Let's feed them all."


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