With food production slowing, food prices rising, and millions of people displaced from their sources of income over the past year, it’s not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent economic disruptions led to a surge in hunger worldwide.

The rise has been so extreme that countries around the world will need to double their investments in food and nutrition security through 2030 to end global hunger once and for all, according to a new report by Donor Tracker

But the scale of the ongoing hunger crisis has less to do with the pandemic than it does with the lack of social protection policies in many countries. When governments enacted physical distancing measures to contain COVID-19, the threadbare floor of support provided to many communities quickly collapsed, leaving families vulnerable to harsh constraints of poverty. Food, health care, shelter, income — if these social protections had been guaranteed by governments, the pandemic wouldn’t have destabilized communities as much, according to Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Providing these social protections costs money, but failing to provide them costs countries more in the long-run as hunger rates rise, health complications pile up, educational systems falter, economic potential gets squandered, and social dysfunction proliferates. 

For many low-income countries, however, the cost of creating a robust welfare system is simply too great. And that’s where international solidarity comes in — in the form of official development assistance from wealthy countries and support from multilateral institutions. 

The report by Donor Tracker delves into the state of food security worldwide from the perspective of international aid and maps out how the fight to end hunger can be achieved by the end of the decade. 

Global Citizen supports these recommendations as part of our Recovery Plan for the World in the lead-up to Global Citizen Live on Sept. 25. In particular, Global Citizen is campaigning to increase investments in the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and CGIAR, mobilize emergency aid for the 41 million people at risk of starvation and funds for school feeding programs for 126 million students, improve agricultural supply chains, and support nutritionally vulnerable communities.  

Global Citizen’s advocacy model works by calling on governments and corporations to make financial commitments to these goals and then subjects these pledges to rigorous accountability standards. 

Here are five findings from the report that can guide the global recovery in the years ahead. 

1. Hunger rates surged by 15% in 2020. 

Prior to the pandemic, global hunger rates had been gradually climbing due to climate change, conflict, and economic stagnation. But the swift impact of COVID-19 swiftly dwarfed these pressures. 

In fact, 1 in 3 people worldwide did not have enough food in 2020 and 10% of the global population suffered from hunger, an increase of 15% from the year before, and a rapid unraveling of more than a decade of progress. 

Children, in particular, were hit hard. Estimates show that 22% of children under 5 years old were stunted and 7% were wasted in 2020. Both health complications stem from a lack of nutrition and can cause lifelong debilities. In the most extreme cases, death can occur — roughly 45% of deaths in this age group are due to a lack of nutrition. 

The UN is calling for an additional $5.5 billion in funding to address famines and help 34 million people avoid starvation. 

2. Agriculture is a major source of income for people living in poverty.

More than a billion people worldwide earn their income through farming, and even more people are involved in the broader system of food production and distribution. The people most likely to farm for a living exist close to the poverty line and, when the pandemic arrived, many of these people lost their livelihoods. Organizations such as IFAD and the World Food Programme (WFP) rushed in to provide cash grants, food aid, and other forms of support. But they could only do so much as humanitarian aid got diverted to containing COVID-19 and domestic government budgets faced shrinking revenue. 

Donor Tracker’s report notes that agricultural disruptions won’t end with the pandemic. On the contrary, climate change poses even greater threats to global food production. As a result, it’s urgent for countries to invest in climate-resilient forms of agriculture that rehabilitate soil, use less water, promote ecosystem regeneration, and generate more food on less land. 

3. Investments in food security, nutrition, and agriculture lag behind need.

Official Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) funding to food security and agriculture has steadily increased in recent years. Funding for food security increased from $5.3 billion to $6.8 billion between 2015 and 2019, while funding for agricultural purposes increased from $7.1 billion to $7.6 billion. The most funding for these sectors came from the United States, which provided $4.8 billion in food and nutrition funding in 2019, according to the report. Among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, both Germany and the United Kingdom provided substantial sums as well, along with Japan, France, Canada, and the Netherlands. 

Despite these increases, funding remains far below what is needed to actually end hunger and transform the global food system. In fact, the Global Hunger Index found that ending hunger by 2030 would require $330 billion, averaging out to around $33 billion per year. With the increase in hunger caused by the pandemic, that number is sure to be higher. 

Farmers in developing countries, meanwhile, need $240 billion annually to cope with climate change. These investments might seem like a lot, but they’re essential to ensure the global food system survives the shocks ahead. 

4. Transforming the food system can mitigate poverty and climate change and improve health, education, and economic outcomes. 

Investing in the global food system and smallholder farmers is a direct way to alleviate poverty, empower communities, and set the foundation for broad economic growth, according to the report. It can also mitigate climate change, safeguard sources of water, and reduce the likelihood of conflict.

There are few humanitarian goals more urgent and far-reaching than Sustainable Development Goal 2: Ending Hunger. Now is the time for countries to redouble their commitment to ensuring everyone has access to nutritious and sustainable food.

5. Upcoming events can act as springboard for resources.

In the months ahead, several events can act as conduits for more food and agricultural funding. First up is the UN Food Systems Summit on Sept. 23, where world leaders will discuss how to build a resilient and sustainable food system. Next, Global Citizen Live comes to countries around the world on Sept. 24 to rally major financial commitments for food security and nutrition. Finally, the Nutrition for Growth Summit in December will help to align policymakers on a global plan for improving nutrition levels around the world. 

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defend the planet and defeat poverty by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.


Defeat Poverty

5 Insights About the Hunger Crisis and How We Can End It

By Joe McCarthy