The coronavirus pandemic threatens to cause food shortages for hundreds of millions of people, especially in Africa, the United Nations warned Friday.
In poorer countries that rely upon exports to pay for food imports, middle class people could end up needing food aid to survive the COVID-19 crisis, the World Food Programme said.
"Generally we are used to dealing with a supply-side shock, like a drought, or a demand-side shock like a recession -- but here it is both... and at a global level," said WFP chief economist Arif Husain.
"This makes it truly, truly unprecedented," he told Geneva-based reporters in a virtual briefing from Rome.
Trade underpins food security in countries with local production shortfalls, the WFP explained in a report.
The world's transport system moves enough maize, wheat, rice and soybean to feed 2.8 billion people, it said.
There are almost 212 million chronically food-insecure and 95 million acutely food-insecure people in poorer countries, said the WFP.
"For many poor countries, the economic consequences will be more devastating than the disease itself," the report said.
Africa, in particular sub-Saharan Africa which imported more than 40 million tonnes of cereals in 2018, is the continent most at risk.
Somalia and South Sudan are the most exposed to any disruption in grain supplies, while others such as Angola, Nigeria and Chad depend on exports to pay for food imports.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases around the world has soared past one million and fatalities have topped 50,000.
According to the latest daily tally compiled by the World Health Organization, there have been just 4,700 confirmed cases in Africa and 127 deaths.
- Panic-buying -
Husain said the WFP was assisting 80-90 million people each year.
But the numbers were expected to swell because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"There are going to be millions more," he said.
"Think about all of the job losses, think about urban populations; middle class, daily wage earners, informal economy people which generally are hand to-mouth to begin with... these are the people who we think are essentially the new caseload."
Petroleum-exporting countries like Iran and Iraq, and war-ravaged states like Yemen and Syria are also deemed among the most vulnerable to food shortages.
"While global markets for basic cereals are well supplied and prices generally low, commodities need to move from the world's 'breadbaskets' to where they are consumed," said the WFP report.
"COVID-19-related containment measures have started to make this more challenging."
Some food-exporting ports are facing disruption. A major grain-exporting port in Argentina has blocked trucks, while Brazilian workers are mulling a strike at South America's biggest port for corn and soybeans exports, the WFP said.
The French grain sector is struggling with shortages of workers and trucks amidst rising export demands and panic-buying, it added.
And prices could rise due to supplemental purchases by major traders or governments who fear a break in the supply chain.
The prices of basic foodstuffs (oils, cereals, meats, dairy products) have tended to fall sharply due to the prospects of an economic slump, according to the monthly index of food prices published Thursday by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization agency.