THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE AFFECTED BY HUNGER globally rose to as many as 828 million in 2021, according to a United Nations report providing fresh evidence that the world is moving further away from its goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030. 

The 2022 edition of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report presents updates on the food security and nutrition situation around the world, including the latest estimates of the cost and affordability of a healthy diet. The report also looks at ways in which governments can repurpose their current support to agriculture to reduce the cost of healthy diets, mindful of the limited public resources available in many parts of the world.

The report was jointly published on 6 July by the Food and Agriculture Organisation 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 Organisation (WHO).

The numbers paint a grim picture:

  • As many as 828 million people were affected by hunger in 2021 – 46 million people more than a year earlier and 150 million more  than in 2019.
  • Around 2.3 billion people in the world (29.3 per cent) were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021. Nearly 924 million people (11.7 per cent of the global population) faced food insecurity at severe levels, an increase of 207 million in two years.
  • The gender gap in food insecurity continued to rise in 2021 – 31.9 per cent of women in the world were moderately or severely food insecure, compared to 27.6 per cent of men – a gap of more than four percentage points, compared with three percentage points in 2020.
  • Almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020, up 112 million from 2019, reflecting the effects of inflation in consumer food prices stemming from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to contain it.
  • An estimated 45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition, which increases children’s risk of death by up to 12 times. Furthermore,149 million children under the age of five had stunted growth and development due to a chronic lack of essential nutrients in their diets, while 39 million were overweight.
  • Looking forward, projections are that nearly 670 million people (eight per cent of the world population) will still be facing hunger in 2030 – even if a global economic recovery is taken into consideration.

Repurposing agricultural policies

The report notes as striking that worldwide support for the food and agricultural sector averaged almost USD 630 billion a year between 2013 and 2018. However, not only is much of this support market-distorting, but it is not reaching many farmers, hurts the environment and does not promote the production of nutritious foods that make up a healthy diet. That is in part because subsidies often target the production of staple foods, dairy and other animal source foods, especially in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Rice, sugar and meats of various types are most incentivised food items worldwide, while fruits and vegetables are relatively less supported, particularly in some low-income countries.

With the threats of a global recession looming, and the implications this has on public revenues and expenditures, a way to support economic recovery involves the repurposing of food and agricultural support to target nutritious foods where per capita consumption does not yet match the recommended levels for healthy diets.

The evidence suggests that if governments repurpose the resources they are using to incentivise the production, supply and consumption of nutritious foods, they will contribute to making healthy diets less costly, more affordable and equitable for all.

Finally, the report also points out that governments could do more to reduce trade barriers for nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables and pulses.

Reacting to the report, Hanna Saarinen, Oxfam Food Policy Lead said: “It is deeply concerning that global hunger has been spiralling since 2019 and is now at such devastating levels around the world. This is happening not because of a shortage of food but rather as a consequence of a broken food system further undermined by conflicts, the effects of the Covid pandemic and worsening climate change.

“Despite this being a global food crisis, seeing millions of people going hungry today, food billionaires’ wealth has reached stratospheric levels – increasing by $382 billion just over the last two years. Our food system has for years perpetuated inequality, impoverished small-scale farmers and pushed millions of vulnerable people into hunger while wreaking havoc on the climate.

“It is easy to blame today’s food crisis on the war in Ukraine, but a longstanding political failure to address how we feed all the people in the world has made our food system susceptible to fragility and failure well before now. We will not break the vicious cycle of hunger and food inflation without addressing the deep inequalities fuelling them. We must fundamentally reimagine a new, more just and sustainable global food system – one that serves the planet and millions of people, rather than a handful of big agribusinesses.

“To save lives now, rich donor governments must honour their promised funding pledges. To date, less than 20 per cent of the $3.8 billion UN appeal for the Central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin has been funded. The East Africa region, which is witnessing its worst drought in recent history and where as many as 28 million people face extreme hunger, and thousands are already starving, has received less than 15 per cent of its nearly $7 billion UN appeal to date.

“Governments must stop making empty promises or creating more bureaucratic processes. Instead, they need to invest in small-scale food producers and food workers. They need to repurpose our global agriculture and food system to better serve the health of people, our planet, and our economies.

“Western governments must also free up resources – including by taxing food companies and billionaires – in order to invest in diverse, local sustainable food production that helps countries to become less dependent on food imports; and support smallholder food producers, especially women.”

* Access the report here.

* Sources: UNICEF and Oxfam