The latest version of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report finds that the number of hungry people worldwide is on the rise for the third year in a row. At a discussion of the report’s findings in Washington, D.C., experts declared the findings exemplary of the challenges involved in eradicating hunger and malnutrition, as well as the challenges involved in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 of Zero Hunger by 2030.
In 2017, the total number of hungry people amounted to 811 million; in 2018, it reached a total of 820 million. “One news article described it as ‘global hunger stable,’” explained Congressman Jim McGovern at a discussion of the report’s findings. “For those who suffer from hunger, from food insecurity, whose children suffer from malnutrition and undernutrition, there is nothing stable about their situation,” says McGovern. “We can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that what is stable in their lives is suffering.”
Rates of overweight and obesity also rose amongst school-aged children and adults—the report finds that obesity rates in adults have reached one in eight worldwide due to improper nutrition and what is called “moderate to severe” food insecurity. The FAO added this rating to the report to capture the experience of individuals who cannot reliably or regularly access food, oftentimes settling for poorer quality or smaller quantities of food to maintain access. This distinction captures challenges to maintaining diet quality and consistency, as opposed to calorie access alone.
The report finds that 2 billion people worldwide fall into this category of “moderate to severe” food insecurity. Although food insecurity predominantly appears in middle and low-income countries, people in affluent countries also struggle with irregular food access—in North America and Europe, this impacts eight percent of the population. Women are more likely than men to be food insecure across every continent.
The report also focuses on the role of economic slowdowns and downturns, capturing the ways in which the root causes of hunger—poverty, inequality, and marginalization—shape food security worldwide. Máximo Torero, the Assistant Director-General of the FAO’s Economic and Social Development Department, explained that between 2011 and 2017, hunger increased in countries that observed economic slowdowns or contractions. “Out of the 77 countries that experienced a rise in hunger, 65 of the countries saw their economies slow down or contract… And downturns and slowdowns have compounded the effects we’ve observed because of climate change and also because of conflict,” says Torero.
This effect is highest in middle-income countries who rely heavily on international primary commodity trade as this makes them more vulnerable to world price swings. This, coupled with rising income inequality in many of these same countries, makes it more difficult for poor and marginalized populations to access safe and affordable food.
Geographically, these effects are most pronounced in Africa and Southern Asia; in Eastern Africa, 30.8 percent of the population faces undernourishment. Worldwide, 9 out of 10 wasted children—defined as those with low weight for height—and over 9 out of 10 stunted children—those with a low height for their age—originate from one of these two regions. These geographical regions also have some of the highest numbers of overweight children. Three-quarters of all of the world’s overweight children are from Africa and Southern Asia, largely due to the interconnected factors of maternal malnutrition, low birth weight, and child stunting increasing the likelihood of overweight and obesity later in life.
The report calls for stronger policies for promoting economic resilience in the short- and medium-term but notes that an economic approach alone is insufficient. Instead, an integrated, multisectoral approach that targets existing inequalities from all levels will be key in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. “The report asks us to look beyond hunger,” says McGovern, urging decision-makers to “look at what is happening to the economies of nations and communities; look at what is happening to the global economy; and look at who benefits, who suffers, and why.”
Photo courtesy of the FAO, Giulio Napolitano.