Why is global hunger on the rise? UN economists explain a new answer

A woman holds up her family's supply of food for the week in Epworth, Harare. Photo by: Photo: Kate Holt / Africa Practice / DFAT / CC BY

UNITED NATIONS — A reformed multilateral approach is needed to reverse a dangerous trend: After decades of improvement, the number of people who suffer from hunger is again slowly increasing.

Global hunger trends, measured by a prevalence of undernourishment, showed progress from 2005 until 2015, but then reverted and have since risen over the last three years, according to the new "2019 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” report.

“The rising number of hungry people is continuing, it is not going down. For the last three years, we have seen it continually increase at a global level and now in our new 2018 estimates this increase is continuing” said Cindy Holleman, senior economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization and a lead author of the report.

The chiefs of the World Food Programme, the U.N. Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and FAO will release their joint findings on Monday at U.N. Headquarters, during the ongoing High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

Devex spoke with Holleman and Arif Husain, chief economist at WFP, in advance of the high-level meeting. They explain the creeping hunger phenomenon and how the new findings challenge pre-existing notions of global hunger.

“The cheapest foods are the most unhealthy. We need to correct that.”

— Cindy Holleman, senior economist, FAO, and a lead author of the report

Redefining what it means to be hungry

More than 821 million people were hungry in 2018, placing the Sustainable Development Goal of “zero hunger” far out of reach by 2030. In 2015, there were 785.4 million people suffering from hunger. Since then, food insecurity has been on the rise globally but has increased the most in Africa and Latin America. And most of the world’s hungry now live in middle-income countries.

More than 75% of the world’s hungry, 78% of stunted children, and 64% of the extreme poor live in middle-income countries, Husain said.

“The level of severe food insecurity is almost three times higher in countries with high-income inequality compared with countries with low-income inequality,” Husain said.

And hunger is not just limited to people who regularly go without enough food, the agencies show for the first time in this annual report. An increasing number of people experience moderate levels of food insecurity — meaning they face uncertainty about their ability to obtain food or may need to choose between the quality or quantity of food.

This reclassification significantly expands the scope of the problem. Over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, according to the report.

“It means people may have access to food, however, they can be uncertain of whether their food can last, if they are going to run out, and they usually are forced to reduce the quality or the quantity of their food,” Holleman explained.

Slow economic growth and rising inequality

Conflict and climate change are clear drivers of hunger, but poor economic performance for many countries following the 2008-2009 financial crisis is another major factor.

“We cannot just talk about climate and conflict. That is too simple. It is economic,” Holleman said. “We need to change our concept of hunger: It is not just in the very poor countries. It is middle-income countries. And this is the most shocking to me, because these are the countries that are performing well, in terms of overall development,” Holleman said, noting that this requires governments to put in place policies and reforms with the priority of addressing hunger and malnutrition.

Hunger is on the rise in some middle-income countries where their economies have slowed or contracted in the last few years and where there is a heavy reliance on primary commodity exports or imports, such as food and beverages.

Collaboration needed to avoid sharp rise in climate-related hunger

Scientists and humanitarian experts sound the alarm that climate change will only exacerbate the growing hunger crisis, as rising temperatures will hamper the ability to grow and deliver quality food.

In 2018, more than 96 million food-insecure people in 33 countries live in places where they faced rising unemployment, lack of regular work and high food prices, according to the report. Conflict and climate change have also hurt economies in places such as the Central African Republic, Syria, Nigeria, and Sudan.

“What has happened in the last few years is prices for primary commodities have fallen for five consecutive years. This has created very strong and deeper and longer declines of economic growth,” Holleman said. “Then the most vulnerable struggle to cover the basic needs in terms of food and health.”

A ‘transformation’ of food systems

A multifaceted approach needs to be at the center of tackling hunger, while also reforming food systems, both Holleman and Husain said.

“We need to transform our agriculture and food system to provide nutritious foods, quality foods at a reasonable cost. So it does mean a transformation in terms of looking carefully at our food systems. The cheapest foods are the most unhealthy. We need to correct that,” Holleman said.

“Pro-poor” policies and growth are also key.

“It’s about balancing a set of policies and investments, with a clear vision of what structural work can diversify the economy away from commodity dependence, but at the same time one that will foster pro-poor, inclusive growth, reduce poverty, and put the priority on hunger and malnutrition,” Holleman said.

Governments need to be driving efforts to help reduce the prevalence of hunger, Husain said.

“Governments must be at the center. And governance and political stability matters. This is the only way to reach and sustain a hunger-free world,” Husain told Devex.  “We as humanitarians and development partners must wholeheartedly support the national efforts through technical and financial assistance, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the countries.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.