WFP chief economist Arif Husain
(WFP chief economist Arif Husain)

Alarming jump in world hunger

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World hunger worsened dramatically in 2020, with most of the increase likely due to the COVID-19, the United Nations said on Monday (July 12). Around a tenth of the global population – up to 811 million people – were undernourished last year, said the report published by five UN agencies, namely 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).

“Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. No region of the world has been spared,” the heads of the five UN agencies wrote in this year’s edition of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, warning of a “critical juncture”.

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, the report said.

Children paid 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.

The report, the first comprehensive assessment of food insecurity and nutrition since Covid-19 struck, said that hunger was spreading and progress on malnutrition lagged even before the pandemic. 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.

“Our worst fears are coming true. Reversing such high levels of chronic hunger will take years if not decades,” stated WFP chief economist Arif Husain.

The report urges policymakers to undertake a number of actions to prevent undernourishment, such as integrating humanitarian, development and peacebuilding policies in conflict areas; strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity;
intervening along supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious food and tackling poverty and structural inequalities.

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.