There was a dramatic worsening of world hunger in 2020, the United Nations said today ( 12 July 2021) – much of it likely related to the fallout of COVID-19. While the pandemic’s impact has yet to be fully mapped, a multi-agency report estimates that around a tenth of the global population – up to 811 million people – were undernourished last year. The number suggests it will take a tremendous effort for the world to honour its pledge to end hunger by 2030.
This year’s edition of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World is the first global assessment of its kind in the pandemic era. The report is jointly published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Previous editions had already put the world on notice that the food security of millions – many children among them – was at stake. “Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of people around the world,” the heads of the five UN agencies write in this year’s Foreword.
They go on to warn of a “critical juncture,” even as they pin fresh hopes on increased diplomatic momentum. “This year offers a unique opportunity for advancing food security and nutrition through transforming food systems with the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit and the COP26 on climate change.” “The outcome of these events,” the five add, “will go on to shape the […] second half of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition” – a global policy commitment yet to hit its stride.
SOUNDBITE (English) Maximo Torero, FAO Chief Economist: “The main finding of this year SOFI is that even before COVID-19 pandemic, the world was not already on track to end world hunger and malnutrition in all these forms by 2030. Conflict, climate change, economic downturns, have also challenged efforts to achieve full nutritional security. In terms of the figures, this year 2020 We find that 720 to 811 million people around the world face hunger in 2020. This number is approximately 118 million more people that were facing hunger in 2020 with respect to 2019. What this means is that 418 million people are more undernourished in Asia and around 282 million people are more undernourished in Africa. And in Latin America we also seen an increase to what 9.1% of the population being undernourished today.”
The numbers in detail
Already in the mid-2010s, hunger had started creeping upwards, dashing hopes of irreversible decline. Disturbingly, in 2020 hunger shot up in both absolute and proportional terms, outpacing population growth: some 9.9 percent of all people are estimated to have been undernourished last year, up from 8.4 percent in 2019.
More than half of all undernourished people (418 million) live in Asia; more than a third (282 million) in Africa; and a smaller proportion (60 million) in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the sharpest rise in hunger was in Africa, where the estimated prevalence of undernourishment – at 21 percent of the population – is more than double that of any other region.
On other measurements too, the year 2020 was sombre. Overall, more than 2.3 billion people (or 30 percent of the global population) lacked year-round access to adequate food: this indicator – known as the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity – leapt in one year as much in as the preceding five combined. Gender inequality deepened: for every 10 food-insecure men, there were 11 food-insecure women in 2020 (up from 10.6 in 2019).
Malnutrition persisted in all its forms, with children paying a high price: in 2020, over 149 million under-fives are estimated to have been stunted, or too short for their age; more than 45 million – wasted, or too thin for their height; and nearly 39 million – overweight. A full three-billion adults and children remained locked out of healthy diets, largely due to excessive costs. Nearly a third of women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia. Globally, despite progress in some areas – more infants, for example, are being fed exclusively on breast milk – the world is not on track to achieve targets for any nutrition indicators by 2030.
Other hunger and malnutrition drivers
In many parts of the world, the pandemic has triggered brutal recessions and jeopardized access to food. Yet even before the pandemic, hunger was spreading; progress on malnutrition lagged. This was all the more so in nations affected by conflict, climate extremes or other economic downturns, or battling high inequality – all of which the report identifies as major drivers of food insecurity, which in turn interact.
On current trends, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World estimates that Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger by 2030) will be missed by a margin of nearly 660 million people. Of these 660 million, some 30 million may be linked to the pandemic’s lasting effects.
SOUNDBITE (English) Maximo Torero, FAO Chief Economist: “When we look at the real reasons behind hunger, always conflict, climate extremes, and economic downturns and slowdowns are the major reasons behind the increase in the hunger undernourishment that we are facing today. Not only that, we also see that all these drivers are exacerbated because of COVID-19. And what also we see today is that access to healthy diets is a huge challenge. That means that today we have around 3 billion people that won't have access to healthy diets, which is the diets we need to be able to improve nutrition, and improve any form of malnutrition in the world.”
What can (still) be done
As outlined in last year’s report, transforming food systems is essential to achieve food security, improve nutrition and put healthy diets within reach of all. This year’s edition goes further to outline six “transformation pathways”. These, the authors says, rely on a “coherent set of policy and investment portfolios” to counteract the hunger drivers.
SOUNDBITE (English) Maximo Torero, FAO Chief Economist: “This year report makes an important call that we need to really act and transform the agri-food systems. We are facing a huge challenge of an increase of undernourishment of 118 million people. We have 3 billion people that don't have access to healthy diets. We have significant increase in stunting and overweight and obesity. If we don't change the way we are operating in the agri-food systems we won't be able to achieve the SDGs, and the goals of the 2030. This year report brings six transformative pathways that can guide actions in addressing the negative impact of the major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition. First, integrating human development, and peace building policies in conflict affected areas. One of the key drivers of food insecurity. Second, scaling up climate resilience across food systems. We need to find a way in which we can increase resilience to climate chocks. Third, strengthening economic resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity, like the slowdowns and downturns that we are facing as a result of COVID-19. Forth, intervening along the food supply chain to lower the cost of nutritious food. We know that we need to increase the access to healthy diets, and, looking at the value chains, minimizing the cost of nutritious food, will be the way forward. Fifth, tackling poverty and structural equalities, ensuring interventions are pro poor and inclusive. This is central. We have to focus on reducing inequalities, not only in reducing poverty, and access to healthy diets, but also to reduce inequality so that this change will maintain over time. And finally, six, to strengthen food environment, and change consumer behavior to promote dietary patterns, with positive impact on human health and the environment. This means give access to healthy diets through change of behavior, but also minimize the tradeoffs over the environment.”
The report also calls for an “enabling environment of governance mechanisms and institutions” to make transformation possible. It enjoins policymakers to consult widely; to empower women and youth; and to expand the availability of data and new technologies. Above all, the authors urge, the world must act now – or watch the drivers of food insecurity recur with growing intensity in coming years, long after the shock of the pandemic has passed.
Hunger: an uncomfortable or painful sensation caused by insufficient energy from diet. Food deprivation; not eating enough calories. Used here interchangeably with (chronic) undernourishment. Measured by the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU).
Moderate food insecurity: a state of uncertainty about the ability to get food; a risk of skipping meals or seeing food run out; being forced to compromise on the nutritional quality and/or quantity of food consumed.
Severe food insecurity: running out of food; experienced hunger; at the most extreme, having to go without food for a day or more.
Malnutrition: the condition associated with deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in the consumption of macro- and/or micronutrients. For example, undernutrition and obesity are both forms of malnutrition. Child stunting or wasting are both indicators for undernutrition.