An estimated 746 million people suffered from severe food insecurity in 2019 — an increase of 60 million from 2014, when global hunger rates began to climb for the first time in decades — according to the United Nations’ The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 report released Tuesday.
Factoring in the additional 16% of the global population that experienced moderate food insecurity, or the lack of access to sufficient or nutritious food, the report estimates that a total of 2 billion people suffered from food insecurity in 2019.
The report shows that the world is far from achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 of ending world hunger by 2030, estimating that 840 million people will face severe food insecurity by the end of the decade, a sobering forecast of the inability of political leaders to address this urgent humanitarian crisis, even as the world produces enough food to feed everyone a nutritious diet.
The global rise in hunger is largely due to the growing number of conflicts worldwide, as well as the escalating consequences of climate change and global inequality. The report calls on policymakers to address hunger as part of a broader push for expanding human rights and economic prosperity.
“We cannot continue thinking of agriculture, the environment, health, poverty, and hunger in isolation,” Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said at the virtual launch of the report. “World problems are interconnected, and the solutions are intertwined. The current pandemic is a wake-up call to all of us.”
The report warns that COVID-19 is drastically worsening the global outlook on hunger. By the end of 2020, an additional 132 million people could face undernourishment due to the economic shocks of the pandemic. Without urgent intervention to protect food systems, support farmers, and provide economic relief to individuals, this unexpected explosion in hunger could last for years.
“Food supply disruptions and the lack of income due to the loss of livelihoods and remittances as a result of COVID-19 means that households across the globe are facing increased difficulties to access nutritious foods and are only making it even more difficult for the poorer and vulnerable populations to have access to healthy diets,” the report’s authors wrote in the executive summary.
While the global rate of stunting — when a child’s mental and physical development is impeded by a lack of nutrients — has decreased by one-third since 2000, 21.3% of children worldwide were stunted in 2019, and the world isn’t on track to reach the Sustainable Development Goal target on stunting by 2030.
The percentage of overweight children worldwide has gone from 5.3% in 2012 to 5.6% in 2019. Australia and New Zealand account for the subregion with the highest prevalence of overweight children at 20.7%, while Africa accounts for the region with the highest overall number of overweight children (24% of all overweight children).
The prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) is unevenly distributed worldwide.
Africa has a PoU of 19.1%, compared to 8.3% in Asia, and 7.4% in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, Asia has the highest absolute number of undernourished people, at 381 million, and Latin America and the Caribbean account for the fastest growing PoU.
The report makes several recommendations in the fight against hunger.
First, countries have to address the rising cost of food. Currently, a “healthy diet” is, on average, 60% more expensive than a “nutrient adequate” diet and five times the cost of an “energy sufficient” diet, putting it far out of reach of many people living in poverty.
In fact, the cost of a healthy diet alone exceeds the international extreme poverty threshold of $1.90 per day, the report notes.
Countries can help individuals afford a healthy diet by subsidizing food, expanding social safety nets, and prioritizing healthy crops in agriculture. Supporting farmers in their ability to cultivate more nutritious crops is also key to preventing and reducing diet-related health problems such as diabetes.
“It is unacceptable that, in a world that produces enough food to feed its entire population, more than 1.5 billion people cannot afford a diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients and over 3 billion people cannot even afford the cheapest healthy diet,” the report’s authors wrote.
The report also calls on countries to address the environmental impact of agriculture and invest in more sustainable and resilient forms of food production. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries should invest in alternatives to meat, which is both environmentally disastrous to produce on a large scale and a vector for contagious diseases.
Transforming the global food system also means bolstering every link in the supply chain — from the cultivation of crops to their transport to markets to their management in markets and stores. Currently, the world wastes upward of one-third of all food produced for human consumption. If this food were better managed, then world hunger could be reduced and the global environment would improve.
The report also calls on policymakers to embark on public health campaigns around diet.
“An enabling environment should also be promoted by policies that, more generally, improve the nutritional quality of the food produced and available on the market, support the marketing of diverse and nutritious food, and provide education and information for fostering individual and social behavior change towards healthy diets,” the report’s authors wrote.