Up to 811 million people worldwide faced hunger in 2020, UN report

Global agriculture

13/07/2021

World hunger worsened dramatically in 2020 largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report released on Monday by five UN agencies, up to 811 million people, or almost a tenth of the global population, were chronically undernourished last year. After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, the so-called ‘prevalence of undernourishment’ increased from 8.4% to around 9.9% in just one year, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ finds. “The past four editions of this report revealed a humbling reality. The world has not been generally progressing either towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 2.1, of ensuring access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food for all people all year round, or towards SDG Target 2.2, of eradicating all forms of malnutrition,” the heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation write in their joint foreword to the report. It is projected that around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030 – 30 million more people than in a scenario in which the pandemic had not occurred.

The authors of the report point out that due to the exceptional nature of the COVID-19 pandemic it was particularly challenging to produce reliable estimates for 2020. For this reason, this year's edition presents a range for the number of people facing hunger (720 million to 811 million). Considering the middle of the projected range (768 million), around 118 million more people were facing hunger in 2020 than in 2019 – or as many as 161 million more, considering the upper limit. For regional breakdowns, the number of 768 million is used. More than half (54.4%) of all undernourished people (418 million) live in Asia, followed by Africa with 281.6 million (36.7%) and Latin America and the Caribbean with 59.7 million (7.8%). Compared with 2019, the number of undernourished people increased by 46 million in Africa, 57 million in Asia, and about 14 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. Not only is the number of undernourished people on the rise, but also the share of undernourished people in the total population. The sharpest rise in hunger occurred in Africa, where the prevalence of undernourishment is now at 21% of the population, compared to 18% in the previous year. The situation is especially alarming in Eastern Africa, where more than a quarter of the population (28.1%) were undernourished in 2020 and in Middle Africa, which includes countries such as Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were 31.8% of the population faced hunger. In Asia, 9% of the population were affected while the share was 9.1% in Latin America.

The report not only provides estimates on the number of chronically undernourished people but also on moderate food insecurity, defined as “a state of uncertainty about the ability to get food” which means that people are forced to compromise on the nutritional quality and/or quantity of food consumed at times during the year due to the lack of money or other resources. Overall, nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have year-round access to adequate food in 2020 – an increase of almost 320 million people in just one year. Close to 12% of the global population, or 928 million people, were severely food insecure in 2020 which means they ran out of food, experienced hunger and, at the most extreme, went for days without eating. This is an increase of 148 million people compared to 2019. “Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, particularly the most vulnerable and those living in fragile contexts,” the heads of the five UN agencies write in the foreword. They add that also other important drivers are behind recent setbacks in food security and nutrition. “These include conflict and violence in many parts of the world as well as climate-related disasters all over the world. Given the past and present interactions of these drivers with economic slowdowns and downturns, as well as high and persistent (and in some countries growing) levels of inequality, it is not surprising that governments could not keep the worst-case scenario for food security and nutrition from materializing and affecting millions of people all over the world.”

The situation is also somber with respect to other indicators: Malnutrition persisted in all its forms. In 2020, over 149 million children under 5 years of age were estimated to have been stunted, or too short for their age, more than 45 million were affected by wasting and were too thin for their height; and nearly 39 million were overweight. “Child malnutrition continues to be a challenge, particularly in Africa and Asia. Adult obesity also continues to increase, with no reversal in the trend in sight at global or regional levels,” the UN heads admit.

The report authors note that the inability of food systems to provide households with adequate access to nutritious foods that contribute to healthy diets has amplified the call for a transformation of food systems to make healthy diets available and affordable to all. This urgent need for transformation has become central to a global debate aimed at addressing some of the greatest challenges to sustainable development. The report wants to contribute to this debate by outlining six “transformation pathways” that are needed to address the key drivers behind the recent rise in hunger and slowing progress towards reducing all forms of malnutrition. First, the report urges policymakers to integrate humanitarian, development and peacebuilding policies in conflict areas – for example, through social protection measures to prevent families from selling meagre assets in exchange for food. The second pathway is scaling up climate resilience across food systems. The third recommendation is to strengthen the economic resilience of the most vulnerable, for example, through in-kind or cash support programmes to lessen the impact of pandemic-style shocks or food price volatility. Fourth, the authors recommend lowering the cost of nutritious foods along food supply chains. The fifth pathway aims at tackling poverty and structural inequalities and the sixth pathway includes a shift to sustainable consumption patterns, for example by changing consumer behaviour through measures such as eliminating industrial trans fats and reducing the salt and sugar content in the food supply, or by protecting children from the negative impact of food marketing.

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