Food insecurity and malnutrition has worsened dramatically in large part due to the pandemic, a new UN multi-agency report shows. But even with these statistics, experts warn that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, the number of people affected by chronic hunger rose to around 768 million last year – 118 million more than in 2019, according to the report released on Monday.
“Well before Covid-19 we were not on the trajectory to ending world hunger, by the UN Sustainable development goals target of 2030,” said Dr Anne Kepple, food security and nutrition expert and co-author of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, speaking to Geneva Solutions.
The pandemic has made this goal significantly more challenging. The 2021 edition of the SOFI report estimates that based on current trends, around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030.
UN Food Systems Summit and the hazy road to 2030. Later this year, policymakers, politicians and civil society are due to meet to take critical decisions on ending global hunger at the UN Food Systems Summit.
“High costs, coupled with persistently high levels of poverty and income inequality, continue to keep healthy diets out of reach for around three billion people, in every region of the world,” António Guterres said in a statement, which also referenced the Summit, due to take place in September.
However, UN food and nutrition experts speaking at the launch of the report said they were unsure how realistic the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was given the current trajectory.
“If this report is not a wake-up call I don’t know what is,” David Beasley, World Food Programme (WFP) executive director, said at the event launching the report. “We're heading in the wrong direction to think that we're going to end hunger by 2030.”
Beasley reprimanded the world’s richest, questioning why 41 million people are currently at risk of starving to death, while the combined net worth of billionaires around the world had increased by $5.3 billion per day, a whopping figure which amounts to the financial resources needed to counteract starvation.
“The fact that we're begging and screaming [for funds] is a disgrace on the face of humanity,” he said.
Laying bare the fallout of the pandemic, the report states that 30 million more people are expected to still face hunger in 2030 compared with a scenario in which the pandemic had not occurred, due to the lasting effects of Covid-19 on global food security.
“Our worst fears are coming true. Reversing such high levels of chronic hunger will take years if not decades,” said the WFP’s chief economist Arif Husain at a press briefing on Monday.
Although the third SOFI, the most recent report is the first global comprehensive assessment of food security and nutrition in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten lives and livelihoods. No region of the world has been spared,” said the report’s authors including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the WFP and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a joint statement.
Kepple echoed these concerns, stating that the pandemic had both laid bare the global inequalities whilst also exacerbating them, yet it is difficult to truly understand the magnitude of the effects of Covid.
“There are many ways Covid is impacting hunger, food security and malnutrition, which has seen the spike in numbers, but we cannot fully know the true extent because we are still in the pandemic and there are restrictions on what we can do,” she said.
Who is most affected? Although it was difficult to collect data, the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt and research based on modelled scenarios were used to provide insights.
Malnutrition, for example, poses a particular threat to children’s health. In 2020 alone an estimated 149 million children under five were affected by stunting, 45 million were wasting and almost 39 million were overweight, with these figures expected to be higher in reality.
“Covid has had a huge impact on health outcomes, with health services closed or limited, inability to give supplementation to children because of social distancing measures and so forth,” Kepple said, adding that in the field, for example, it was difficult to weigh and measure children.
In the “Global North”, measures in place to cushion the blow of the pandemic such as social safety nets and formal employment meant food insecurity inched up from 7.7 per cent to 8.8 per cent. In less wealthy countries, however, this was not the case.
Sweeping across low and lower-middle income countries in Africa, Asia and to a lesser extent Latin America and the Caribbean, the biggest spikes are recorded, with the sharpest rise in Africa, where 21 per cent of the people are estimated to be undernourished.
Beyond the regional disparities, the data highlights the gendered aspects of food insecurity, where for every ten food insecure men there were 11 women, Kepple said.
The global employment loss for women was five per cent, compared to 3.9 per cent for men. This cost women around the world at least $800 billion in lost income in 2020.
“In the Covid-19 context, the informal sector was badly hit and we know that more women proportionally in lower income countries are employed in the informal economy,” explained Dominic Burgeon, who heads up the FAO team in Geneva.
Addressing root causes. Covid-19, climate change and conflicts are the major reasons behind world hunger and the report asks countries to increase social spending, end conflicts and transform agriculture to let people grow what they can eat.
“We have to realise that hunger causes conflict, and conflict causes destabilisation, which opens the door to things like terrorism and feeds into forced displacement not only within countries but across borders,” Husain said.
The pandemic has shone a light on and deepened poverty and inequality everywhere. In addition, globally, there was a surge in food prices, increasing the intensity and frequency of food insecurity.
The FAO’s food price index, for example, has risen 34 per cent in the past year, a trend driven by violence and climate extremes such as droughts. In regions affected by the three drivers, this is reflected in the numbers of those who are hungry.
“In countries like Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Yemen, the results show that the prevalence of undernourishment has reached 15 per cent,” Burgeon explained, adding that the complexity of the situation needs to be addressed through the six pathways which can be adopted in context to the conditions being analysed.
“There is no one size fits all, the situation must be understood through thorough analysis, and then the pathways could be used to find appropriate ways to address the problems,” he said.
The six pathways are said to address underlying causes of food insecurity and work towards more sustainable food systems transformation by adopting measures including, taking an integrated humanitarian, development and peacebuilding approach; scaling up climate resilience; and intervening along the food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods.
For both Kepple and Burgeon, their biggest takeaway is that the report features highly on the food systems summit agenda. They hope that bringing together government and policymakers will ensure the findings and recommendations are discussed and implemented.
“Our blueprint to recover from this pandemic is the 2030 Agenda. Investing in changes in our food systems will support the transformation of our world,” Guterres concluded.