The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World: Chronic Hunger on the Rise
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Photo Credit: Paul Stephens / IRIN

After years of steady decline, the number of chronically hungry people around the world appears to be on the rise again. In addition, the challenge of malnutrition is getting increasingly complex, with many countries facing simultaneous burdens of undernutrition and obesity.

These are two major messages coming out of the latest The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, published by FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WHO, and WFP.

This annual report measure progress toward SDG targets 2.1 and 2.2 (ensuring access to food for all and ending all forms of malnutrition). The 2017 edition uses two measures of food insecurity – prevalence of undernourishment and prevalence of food insecurity. The latter is a new measure estimated using data collected for a representative sample of all individuals, asking them about their ability to access food. It measures moderate and severe food insecurity along the so-called “Food Insecurity Experience Scale.” The report finds results for the existence of severe food insecurity for 2014-2016 and confirms the visible rise in food insecurity in 2016. In addition, the 2017 report also assesses trends for multiple nutrition indicators, including child stunting, child wasting, and child overweight.

According to the report, chronic hunger rose in 2016 to 815 million people worldwide; this represents a significant increase from 777 million hungry people in 2015, although it remains below the high of 900 million hungry people in 2000. Africa south of the Sahara, Southeastern Asia, and Western Asia have been particularly hard-hit by rising food insecurity. In 2017, four countries – South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia – faced famine or near-famine conditions, and an estimated 37 countries are currently in need of food assistance.

The prevalence of undernutrition was on the decline in most years between 2000 and 2013, falling from 14.7 percent in 2000 to 10.8 percent in 2013. Since 2013, however, the report indicates that the decline has stagnated and may, in fact, have jumped back up to 11 percent in 2016. Undernutrition rates remain highest in Africa south of the Sahara, with more than 243 million people (22.7 percent of the population) affected by hunger in 2016. Almost 520 million people in Asia and more than 42 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean did not have sufficient access to food in 2016.

Interestingly, the report finds that despite this recent increase in food insecurity, child stunting has continued its declining trend, both globally and regionally. The prevalence of child stunting fell from 29.5 percent in 2005 to 22.9 percent in 2016. Yet, progress remains too slow for comfort. At the going pace, there will still be 130 million stunted children worldwide by 2025, well short of internationally set targets. In addition, child wasting continues to affect 8 percent of children under five worldwide.

Overweight and obesity form another nutrition challenge and are on the rise around the world. The global prevalence of obesity among adults more than doubled between 1980 and 2014, and the problem is not limited to high-income developed regions. In Latin America and the Caribbean, around 25 percent of the adult population was obese in 2016; this number was 11 percent for Africa and 7 percent for Asia. In addition, an estimated 41 million children were considered overweight in 2016.

The reasons for these mostly worrisome trends in malnutrition in all its forms vary, but the report identifies several common threads, including conflict and weather-related shocks. Of the 815 million chronically hungry people worldwide, an estimated 489 million live in areas affected by conflict and civil insecurity. In 2017, FAO classified 19 countries as experiencing ongoing food crisis; all 19 are also currently experiencing conflict and violence. This strife is also often compounded by weather-related shocks such as prolonged drought. These factors conspire against food security by destroying assets, damaging crops, disrupting distribution networks, and eroding livelihoods. Most at risk are already vulnerable populations like smallholders and the rural poor, as many of today’s conflicts are fought in rural areas. The report further points out that loss of food security itself may become a trigger of conflict, as it may compound other grievances.

This two-way relationship between conflict and development is increasingly being recognized. In fact, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls out this link explicitly, emphasizing the need for increased international collaboration in conflict prevention and resolution. This will require a multi-sectoral approach focused on building more resilient livelihoods, which will require looking beyond immediate humanitarian aid.

In the short term, cash transfer programs and other social safety nets can help protect households and help them cope better with such shocks. For more lasting resilience, strategies to adapt to climate change, including climate-smart agriculture and on- and off-farm diversification of livelihoods, can help prevent drops in food production and subsequent rises in food prices, as well as help populations hedge better against loss of income. Together, these short-term and long-term strategies can help households better manage risk and can encourage investment in agriculture and other income-generating activities, thus improving livelihoods and enhancing overall resilience to future crises.

On October 5, IFPRI will be holding a discussion of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, with further analysis from a range of experts and stakeholders. The event will be livestreamed starting at 12:15 ET.

By: Rob Vos and Sara Gustafson, IFPRI