As many as 828 million people worldwide struggled with hunger in 2021, an increase of 46 million from the previous year, and 150 million more than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022” report published by the United Nations on Wednesday.
Widen the scope to include moderate food insecurity — people who struggle to get adequate meals each day — and the global number jumps to 2.1 billion, while more than 3.1 billion people are essentially priced out of healthy diets.
As countries work to eliminate world hunger by the end of the decade, the “triple crises” of climate change, conflict, and COVID-19 are making that goal increasingly distant. In fact, the report projects that 670 million people will still struggle with hunger in 2030, a level that would be proportionally unchanged from 2015.
“These are depressing figures for humanity,” Gilbert F. Houngbo, the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said in a statement. “We continue to move away from our goal of ending hunger by 2030. The ripple effects of the global food crisis will most likely worsen the outcome again next year. We need a more intense approach to end hunger and IFAD stands ready to do its part by scaling up its operations and impact. We look forward to having everyone's support.”
In recent months, the biggest disruption to food availability has been the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has limited both countries’ export capacity, causing prices for both farming inputs like fertilizer and foods like wheat and sunflower oil to skyrocket worldwide.
“There is a real danger these numbers will climb even higher in the months ahead,” David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, said in a statement. “The global price spikes in food, fuel and fertilizers that we are seeing as a result of the crisis in Ukraine threaten to push countries around the world into famine. The result will be global destabilization, starvation, and mass migration on an unprecedented scale. We have to act today to avert this looming catastrophe.”
Longer-term trends are dragging down the global food system as well. Countries have yet to rebound from the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, which both pushed more people into poverty, making it harder for them to afford food, and harmed the ability of farmers to bring crops to harvest in the first place.
The climate crisis has been exerting pressure on the food system for decades and the rising prevalence of heat waves, droughts, floods, and extreme storms is making it more difficult and expensive to farm, with entire regions losing the capacity to grow certain crops.
Then there are the ways in which corporate power distorts the structure and priorities of the global food system. Rather than focusing on growing foods that nourish people and sustain the land, food production is too often shaped by profit motives. Companies guided by the profit principle decide how land gets used, what gets planted, where those crops end up, and who can afford what.
The result is a system in which nearly 40% of food gets wasted, vast amounts of land get degraded, water sources get polluted and depleted, nutrient-empty processed foods fill grocery store shelves, and hunger, which doesn’t need to exist, continues to plague communities.
The current food system exacerbates inequalities. In every region of the world, women are more likely to experience food insecurity than men. It also harms the potential of children. An estimated 22% of children under the age of 5 were stunted as of 2021, while 6.7% were wasted, and 5.7% were overweight. Gains that have been made to reduce stunting — when children have diminished bodies and brains as a result of undernutrition — in recent decades are now at risk, the report noted.
Significant regional disparities exist. Hunger is most prevalent in Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people struggle with undernourishment, compared to 9.1% in Asia, 8.6% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.8% in Oceania, and 2.5% in North America.
These differences often boil down to food affordability. In Africa, for example, nearly 80% of people are unable to afford a healthy diet, compared to just 1.9% in North America.
Unless countries overhaul this system, empowering smallscale farmers and prioritizing the production of healthy, sustainable, and affordable foods, food security and nutrition will not improve in any meaningful sense, the report's authors warned.
But the ongoing stinginess of governments worldwide means that it's unlikely for new funds to be disbursed to solve this problem. Instead, countries must change how they allocate existing funds, the report argued.
An estimated $630 billion gets spent by governments on agricultural issues each year, but the report showed that most of this money has the effect of entrenching inequalities, harming the environment, and preventing more nutritious and diverse foods from being grown.
"The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022" lays out a new model for existing public funds that could make food more affordable, increase access to healthy foods, protect land and water resources, and empower smallholder farmers.
For low-income countries with economies dependent on agriculture, funding from wealthy nations will be key as they transition to more sustainable food systems. Foreign aid for climate adaptation, especially as it relates to smallholder farmers, needs to be rapidly scaled up to both meet and go beyond existing pledges.
In all contexts, reforms to repurpose support to food and agriculture must also be accompanied by policies that promote shifts in consumer behaviours along with social protection policies to mitigate unintended consequences of reforms for vulnerable populations,” the report’s foreword said. “Finally, these reforms must be multisectoral, encompassing health, environment, transport and energy policies.”
“Our organizations stand firmly committed and ready to support governments and bring additional allies to achieve such policy coherence at the global and national levels,” it continued. “Everyone has a right to access safe nutritious foods and affordable healthy diets. Investing in healthy and sustainable agrifood systems is an investment in the future, and in future generations.”
Global hunger is increasing. Join us in taking action now to help call on world leaders to invest in agriculture to avoid a food catastrophe.