Global hunger continues to rise, new UN report says

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A busy fish market in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia.

New evidence continues to signal that the number of hungry people in the world is growing, reaching 821 million in 2017 or one in every nine people, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018 released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Limited progress is also being made in addressing the multiple forms of malnutrition, ranging from child stunting to adult obesity, putting the health of hundreds of millions of people at risk, the report said.

Hunger has been on the rise over the past three years, returning to levels from a decade ago, the report said, adding that this reversal in progress sends a clear warning that more must be done and urgently if the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger is to be achieved by 2030.

The situation is worsening in South America and most regions of Africa, while the decreasing trend in undernourishment that characterized Asia seems to be slowing down significantly.

Key facts and figures

  • Number of hungry people in the world in 2017: 821 million or 1 in every 9 people 
  • in Asia: 515 million
  • in Africa: 256.5 million
  • in Latin America and the Caribbean: 39 million
  • Children under 5 affected by stunting (low height-for-age): 150.8 million (22.2%)
  • Children under 5 affected by wasting (low weight-for-height): 50.5 million (7.5%)
  • Children under 5 who are overweight (high weight-for-height): 38.3 million (5.6%)
  • Percentage of women of reproductive age affected by anaemia: 32.8% 
  • Percentage of infants aged below 6 months who were exclusively breastfed: 40.7%
  • Adults who are obese: 672 million (13% or 1 in 8 adults)

The annual UN report found that climate variability affecting rainfall patterns and agricultural seasons, and climate extremes such as droughts and floods, are among the key drivers behind the rise in hunger, together with conflict and economic slowdowns.

The impact of climate variability and extremes on hunger

Changes in climate are already undermining production of major crops such as wheat, rice and maize in tropical and temperate regions and, without building climate resilience, this is expected to worsen as temperatures increase and become more extreme.

Analysis in the report shows that the prevalence and number of undernourished people tend to be higher in countries highly exposed to climate extremes. Undernourishment is higher again when exposure to climate extremes is compounded by a high proportion of the population depending on agricultural systems that are highly sensitive to rainfall and temperature variability.

Temperature anomalies over agricultural cropping areas continued to be higher than the long-term mean throughout 2011-2016, leading to more frequent spells of extreme heat in the last five years. The nature of rainfall seasons is also changing, such as the late or early start of rainy seasons and the unequal distribution of rainfall within a season.

The harm to agricultural production contributes to shortfalls in food availability, with knock-on effects causing food price hikes and income losses that reduce people’s access to food.

The other side of hunger: obesity on the rise

Adult obesity is worsening, and more than one in eight adults in the world is obese. The problem is most significant in North America, but Africa and Asia are also experiencing an upward trend, the report shows.

Undernutrition and obesity coexist in many countries, and can even be seen side by side in the same household. Poor access to nutritious food due to its higher cost, the stress of living with food insecurity, and physiological adaptations to food deprivation help explain why food-insecure families may have a higher risk of overweight and obesity.

Shekhar Ghosh is consulting editor, Indoasiancommodities.com. He has edited and written for publications like Business India, Business Standard, Business Today, Outlook and many other international publications. He can be reached at shekhar.ghosh@indoasiancommodities.in.

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