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UN Warns Disasters Wreak Havoc With Food Production

FILE - A photo taken Feb. 8, 2021, shows a farmer screaming to chase away desert locusts in maize field in Meru, Kenya.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns of growing hunger and loss of lives and livelihoods if nations do not find ways to reduce the impact of natural disasters on global food production.

A new FAO report said the world’s food production is facing unprecedented threats. They include fires, droughts, floods, unusually large desert locust swarms and emerging biological threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

An aerial view shows dead spruce trees suffering from drought stress in a forest near Iserlohn, western Germany, on April 28, 2020.
An aerial view shows dead spruce trees suffering from drought stress in a forest near Iserlohn, western Germany, on April 28, 2020.

The report notes the annual occurrence of natural disasters is now three times greater than it was in the 1970s and '80s. FAO Chief Economist Maximo Torero says this surge of natural disasters is having a devastating impact on agriculture and livelihoods and inflicting severe economic damage.

“We found that drought turns out to be the most destructive force for agriculture," Torero said. "Drought caused an estimated $37 billion in crop and livestock production loss [from 2008 to 2018] in the least-developed countries and low-and-middle-income countries. … Floods and storms are the next most relevant loss in agriculture.”

During this same period, Torero said, the impact of disasters cost the agricultural sectors of developing countries more than $108 billion in lost crop and livestock production. He said Asia was hardest hit, followed by Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

The FAO said 2.5 billion people, about 60% in developing countries, depend on agriculture for their daily food, their income and their survival. It warned that fragile societies would experience greater food insecurity and increased destitution if they failed to invest in disaster prevention measures.

The director of the FAO Liaison Office in Geneva, Dominique Burgeon, said early warning systems and risk reduction strategies can prevent a threat from turning into a disaster. For example, he said, U.N. agencies acted early to control a swarm of locusts that was threatening to destroy crops in East Africa.

As a result, 4 million tons of crops were saved, Burgeon said. "This is enough to feed about 34 million people in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, with a value of about $1.5 billion.”

Burgeon said smart investments would pay great dividends. He said investing $1 in good practices would save $3.70 in crop losses.