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Dramatic worsening of world hunger in 2020
by WFP, IFAD, FAO, Unicef, agencies
July 2021
There was a dramatic worsening of world hunger in 2020, the United Nations said this week – 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.
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.
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.
Transforming food systems is essential to achieve food security, improve nutrition and put healthy diets within reach of all. This year’s edition outlines six “transformation pathways”. These, the authors say, rely on a “coherent set of policy and investment portfolios” to counteract the hunger and malnutrition drivers.
Depending on the particular driver (or combination of drivers) confronting each country, 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;
Scale up climate resilience across food systems – for example, by offering smallholder farmers wide access to climate risk insurance and forecast-based financing;
Strengthen the resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity – for example, through in-kind or cash support programmes to lessen the impact of pandemic-style shocks or food price volatility;
Intervene along supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods – for example, by encouraging the planting of biofortified crops or making it easier for fruit and vegetable growers to access markets;
Tackle poverty and structural inequalities – for example, by boosting food value chains in poor communities through technology transfers and certification programmes;
Strengthen food environments and changing consumer behaviour – for example, by eliminating industrial trans fats and reducing the salt and sugar content in the food supply, or protecting children from the negative impact of food marketing.
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 hunger and malnutrition recur with growing intensity in coming years, long after the shock of the pandemic has passed.
Gilbert Houngbo, president of Ifad, said enough food was being produced to feed everyone and the crisis was a failure in the food system.
“It is clear that, unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food system, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, particularly the most vulnerable and those living in countries affected by conflict, climate change and inequality,” he said.
Houngbo said the pandemic had underlined the importance of investing in rural areas, which have suffered some of the worst effects of poverty and the climate crisis, as well as conflicts that can both be fuelled by hunger and cause it.
He said small-scale farmers were the most reliable suppliers of food and should receive more investment to help in reaching the global goal of ending hunger. He said the growing shift towards local food production in some African countries was encouraging.
“In some of the world’s poorest countries, agriculture has the potential to become a thriving and successful sector that feeds its communities, creates jobs and provides economic and livelihood benefits,” he said.
UNICEF Director Henrietta Fore: "The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted — and continues to disrupt — all of the systems related to good nutrition. From food and health, to social protection programmes for families who are suffering financially.
"This means that millions of children are still struggling to access the nutritious and safe diets they need to grow, develop and learn to their full potential.
"For example, a national survey in Indonesia found that 31 per cent of households reported food shortages, compared to just three per cent in the previous year. And 38 per cent reported eating less than usual, compared to just five per cent the previous year.
"We’re seeing similar findings around the world. In a UNICEF survey, 90 per cent of 135 countries reported a decline in coverage of essential nutrition services during the pandemic — and on average, 40 per cent of the world’s basic nutrition services were disrupted.
"The pandemic alone is not to blame for the food and nutrition crisis. As this year’s report reminds us, conflicts, climate change and economic recessions are also driving food and malnutrition insecurity and threatening the resilience of food systems, which are the cornerstone of good nutrition".
"Famines should be consigned to history, yet in multiple countries they loom again.. Poverty is shrinking incomes and placing nutritious, safe, and diverse foods and diets out-of-reach for millions of children and families.
"In 2020, an estimated 149 million, or more than 1 in 5 children under 5 years of age were suffering from stunting. And 45 million were suffering from wasting".
"We need to build the resilience of local food systems to external shocks, such as conflict and climate change, that leave communities across the world vulnerable to malnutrition".
“The report highlights a devastating reality: the path to Zero Hunger is being stopped dead in its tracks by conflict, climate and COVID-19,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley. Children’s future potential “is being destroyed by hunger”, he insisted. “The world needs to act to save this lost generation before it’s too late.”
Jean-Michel Grand, director of Action Against Hunger UK, said: “Every year global hunger levels rise and every year it seems the international community kicks the can further down the road. What percentage of the world’s population needs to be going hungry before governments start to take this issue seriously? Will we have to wait until famines are widespread? Because this is an inevitable consequence if we continue to mishandle and underfund this issue".
Food security indicators – latest updates and progress towards ending hunger and ensuring food security
World hunger increased in 2020 under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) increased from 8.4 to around 9.9 percent in just one year, heightening the challenge of achieving the Zero Hunger target by 2030.
It is projected that 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020. 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 bound of the projected range.
Hunger affects 21.0 percent of the population in Africa, compared with 9.0 percent in Asia and 9.1 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. In terms of numbers, more than half of the world’s undernourished are found in Asia (418 million) and more than one-third in Africa (282 million).
While the global prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity (measured using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale) has been slowly on the rise since 2014, the estimated increase in 2020 was equal to that of the previous five years combined.
Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020 – an increase of almost 320 million people in just one year.
The sharpest increases in moderate or severe food insecurity in 2020 occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Africa. In Northern America and Europe, food insecurity increased for the first time since the beginning of FIES data collection in 2014.
Of the 2.37 billion people facing moderate or severe food insecurity, half (1.2 billion) are found in Asia, one-third (799 million) in Africa, and 11 percent (267 million) in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Close to 12 percent of the global population was severely food insecure in 2020, representing 928 million people – 148 million more than in 2019.
At the global level, the gender gap in the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity has grown even larger in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity being 10 percent higher among women than men in 2020, compared with 6 percent in 2019.
The high cost of healthy diets coupled with persistent high levels of income inequality put healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people, especially the poor, in every region of the world in 2019 – slightly less than in 2017.
Notably, Africa and Latin America show an increase in the unaffordability of heathy diets between 2017 and 2019, but it is likely that increases will be seen in most regions in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
* Complete PDF report (240pp):
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Acute food insecurity soars to five-year high warns Global Report on Food Crises
by Global Network Against Food Crisis, agencies
July 2021
Conflict, COVID-19, climate crisis likely to drive higher levels of acute food insecurity in 23 hunger hotspots.
Efforts to fight a global surge in acute food insecurity are being stymied in several countries by fighting and blockades that cut off life-saving aid to families on the brink of famine, warn the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) in a new report issued today.
Humanitarian access constraints as well as a lack of funding also hamper the two UN agencies' efforts to provide emergency food assistance and enable farmers to plant crops. .
This is of grave concern as conflict, the economic repercussions of COVID-19 and the climate crisis are expected to drive higher levels of acute food insecurity in 23 hunger hotspots over the next four months, according to the report, as acute food insecurity continues to increase in scale and severity.
The 23 hotspots identified are Afghanistan, Angola, Central Africa Republic, Central Sahel, Chad, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, El Salvador together with Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Lebanon, Madagascar, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sierra Leone together with Liberia, Somalia, South Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen.
FAO and WFP have warned that 41 million people are at risk of falling into famine unless they received immediate food and livelihood assistance.
2020 saw 155 million people facing acute food insecurity at Crisis or worse levels in 55 countries (IPC/CH Phases 3 or worse) according to the Global Report on Food Crises, an increase of more than 20 million from 2019 - and the trend is only expected to worsen this year.
"The vast majority of those on the verge of crisis levels of hunger are farmers. Alongside food assistance, we must do all we can to help them resume food production themselves, so that families and communities can move back towards self-sufficiency," said the FAO Director-General.
"That's extremely difficult without access, and without adequate funding -- and so far, support to agriculture as key means of preventing widespread famine remains largely overlooked by donors. Without such support to agriculture, humanitarian needs will keep skyrocketing," he added.
"Families that rely on humanitarian assistance to survive are hanging by a thread. When we cannot reach them that thread is cut, and the consequences are nothing short of catastrophic," warned David Beasley, WFP Executive Director.
Communities cut off from aid
The report highlights that conflict, climate extremes and economic shocks -- often related to the economic fallout of COVID-19 - will likely remain primary drivers of acute food insecurity for the August-November 2021 period.
Humanitarian access constraints are another severe aggravating factor that hamper efforts to curb food crises and prevent starvation, death and a total collapse of livelihoods, increasing the risk of famine.
Countries currently facing most significant obstacles preventing aid from reaching those who need it most include Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, Mali, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
"Humanitarian access isn't some abstract concept - it means authorities approving paperwork in time so that food can be moved swiftly, it means checkpoints allow trucks to pass and reach their destination, it means humanitarian responders are not targeted, so they are able to carry out their life and livelihood-saving work," noted Beasley.
Scale and severity of acute food insecurity deepens.
Ethiopia and Madagascar are the world's newest "highest alert" hunger hotspots according to the report.
Ethiopia faces a devastating food emergency linked to ongoing conflict in the Tigray region -- where reaching those desperately in need remains an enormous challenge - with 401,000 people expected to face catastrophic conditions by September -- the highest number in one country since the 2011 famine in Somalia.
In southern Madagascar the worst drought in 40 years -- combined with rising food prices, sandstorms, and pests affecting staple crops - is expected to push thousands of more people into famine-like conditions by the end of the year.
The new highest alerts issued for Ethiopia and Madagascar add to South Sudan, Yemen, and northern Nigeria, which remain among the acute food insecurity hotspots of greatest global concern.
In some areas of these countries populations already experiencing conditions of famine and significant numbers of people are at risk of falling into famine.
The report also flags other countries as amongst the worst hunger hotspots -- where life-threatening hunger is on the rise - Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo - the country with the highest number of people in urgent need of food assistance in the world, Haiti, Honduras, the Sudan, and Syria.
In Afghanistan, acute food insecurity is becoming increasingly critical due to ongoing drought, rising conflict-driven displacement as well as high food prices and widespread unemployment caused by COVID-19.
In Haiti an already precarious food insecurity situation is expected to get worse as the country faces likely lower crop production due to lack/irregular rains and is reeling from worsening political instability and food price inflation, and the impacts of COVID-19-related restrictions.
Humanitarian action is urgently needed to prevent hunger, famine and death in all 23 hotspots, the report warns, providing country-specific recommendations covering both shorter-term emergency responses, as well as anticipatory actions to protect rural livelihoods and increase agricultural production to prevent food insecurity from worsening and help at-risk communities better withstand future shocks.
May 2021
The number of people facing acute food insecurity and needing urgent life and livelihood-saving assistance has hit a five-year high in 2020 in countries beset by food crises, an annual report launched today by the Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC) - an international alliance of the UN, the EU, governmental and non-governmental agencies working to tackle food crises together - has found. Conflict, economic shocks – including due to COVID-19, extreme weather – pushed at least 155 million people into acute food insecurity in 2020.
The stark warning from the 2021 Global Report on Food Crises reveals that conflict, or economic shocks that are often related to COVID-19 along with extreme weather, are continuing to push millions of people into acute food insecurity.
Report’s key findings:
The report reveals that at least 155 million people experienced acute food insecurity at Crisis or worse levels (IPC/CH Phase 3 or worse) - or equivalent - across 55 countries/territories in 2020 - an increase of around 20 million people from the previous year, and raises a stark warning about a worrisome trend: acute food insecurity has kept up its relentless rise since 2017 - the first edition of the report.
Of these, around 133 000 people were in the most severe phase of acute food insecurity in 2020 – Catastrophe (IPC/CH Phase 5) – in Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Yemen where urgent action was needed to avert widespread death and a collapse of livelihoods.
At least another 28 million people faced Emergency (IPC/CH Phase 4) level of acute food insecurity in 2020 – meaning they were one step away from starvation - across 38 countries/territories where urgent action saved lives and livelihoods, and prevented famine spreading.
Thirty-nine (39) countries/territories have experienced food crises during the five years that the GNAFC has been publishing its annual report; in these countries/territories, the population affected by high levels of acute food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3 or worse) increased from 94 to 147 million people between 2016 and 2020.
Additionally, in the 55 food-crisis countries/territories covered by the report, over 75 million children under five were stunted (too short) and over 15 million wasted (too thin) in 2020.
Countries in Africa remained disproportionally affected by acute food insecurity. Close to 98 million people facing acute food insecurity in 2020 - or two out of three - were on the African continent. But other parts of the world have also not been spared, with countries including Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Haiti among the ten worst food crises last year.
The key drivers behind rising acute food insecurity in 2020 were:
conflict (main driver pushing almost 100 million people into acute food insecurity in 20 countries/territories, up from 77 million in 2019);
economic shocks - often due to COVID-19 - replaced weather events as the second driver of acute food insecurity both in terms of numbers of people and countries affected (over 40 million people in 17 countries/territories, up from 24 million and 8 countries in 2019); and, weather extremes (around 16 million people in 15 countries/territories, down from 34 million in 25 countries/territories).
While conflict will remain the major driver of food crises in 2021, COVID-19 and related containment measures and weather extremes will continue to exacerbate acute food insecurity in fragile economies.
Statement from the Global Network Against Food Crises:
“One year after the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outlook for 2021 and beyond is grim. Conflict, pandemic-related restrictions fuelling economic hardship and the persistent threat of adverse weather conditions will likely continue driving food crises,” said the European Union (EU), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) - founding members of the Global Network - together with USAID in a joint statement released with the report.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of the global food system and the need for more equitable, sustainable and resilient systems to nutritiously and consistently feed 8.5 billion people by 2030. A radical transformation of our agri-food systems is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”
“The protracted nature of most food crises shows that long-term environmental, social and economic trends compounded by increasing conflict and insecurity are eroding the resilience of agri-food systems. If current trends are not reversed, food crises will increase in frequency and severity”.
The Global Network emphasises the need to act urgently and decisively, and calls for the international community to mobilise against hunger.
“Conflict and hunger are mutually reinforcing. We need to tackle hunger and conflict together to solve either…We must do everything we can to end this vicious cycle. Addressing hunger is a foundation for stability and peace,” said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, in the foreword of the report.
* Acute food insecurity is when a person's inability to consume adequate food puts their lives or livelihoods in immediate danger. It draws on internationally-accepted measures of extreme hunger, such as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) and the Cadre Harmonisé. It is not the same as chronic hunger, as reported on each year by the UN's annual State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report. Chronic hunger is when a person is unable to consume enough food over an extended period to maintain a normal, active lifestyle.

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