A looming food crisis that could see a quarter-billion people face starvation is being exacerbated by the pandemic, says the UN World Food Program. CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

Millions facing starvation, WFP warns

  • February 3, 2021

The head of the UN World Food Program warned Pope Francis in a Jan. 28 meeting at the Vatican that famine looms in a number of countries as COVID-19 ravages communities around the world

More than a quarter of a billion people are staring down the barrel of starvation in no small part because of all the ways COVID-19 has disrupted lives and economies over the last year. The global hunger emergency prompted Pope Francis to invite WFP executive director David Beasley to the Vatican for a private meeting.

During their 40-minute meeting, Beasley “voiced specific fears about famine looming,” the WFP said in a statement.”

The Pope’s meeting with Beasley was a signal that the Holy Father is seriously concerned about the reality Church workers and volunteers are seeing on the ground in Brazil, Sr. Jean Bellini told The Catholic Register in an interview from Goiânia, central Brazil.

Bellini, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, N.Y., works with the Comissão Pastoral da Terra — an organization created by the Brazilian bishops and a longstanding Development and Peace partner. Better known as CPT, the organization has nearly 700 workers on the ground in poor, rural communities, about 500 of them volunteers. 

Almost as soon as the COVID lockdown hit in Brazil last April — Brazil has reported the third most cases of COVID-19, behind only the United States and India, and the second most deaths after the U.S. — CPT workers started reporting people were having more difficulty feeding their families, Bellini said.

“They are people who would normally be able to at least fend for themselves with subsistence farming,” she said. “But during the months when they would be selling their produce they had to stay put on their farms.”

The lockdown kept farmers from getting their goods to local, weekly fairs. Without the fairs, farmers didn’t have money to buy the food they couldn’t grow themselves. But the situation is even worse for the poor in Brazil’s cities, Bellini said.

Commodity trading on a global scale has tended to disadvantage the poor in Brazil, according to Bellini. As a major agricultural power, Brazil relies on commodity markets for its balance of payments, exporting corn, rice, soy and other staples.

“What happened in 2020 was that Brazil exported so much of those grains that eventually, in the later months of the year, they had to import rice from the United States. The price of the basic food basket went up considerably,” Bellini said. “While the poorest people have the lowest income to start with, they had to pay proportionately more and more to buy those basic components.”

The CPT has relied on the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and other Caritas partners to help get people through the crisis. Money that was originally earmarked for organizing and meetings was quickly shifted over to help meet people’s basic needs.

“The money from Development and Peace we’ve used for food baskets, basic hygiene products, and we’ve used it for masks to distribute to the people,” Bellini said.

Before meeting with Pope Francis, Beasley had pleaded with governments, institutions and billionaires at the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland, to help it avert a “nutrition crisis.”

(With files from the CNS)

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