On World Food Day, Colm Regan discusses how, despite significant progress, the number of hungry people remains high at a time when the world has never been richer and there is more than enough food to feed all.

At the World Food Conference in Rome in 1974, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made the declaration that within 10 years no child would go to bed hungry. A full 45 years later, although repeated over and over, that promise has not been fulfilled. Despite this reality, very significant progress has been achieved. However, the evidence and the argument around it remain mixed and often contradictory.

Overall, global hunger is moving from what is described as ‘serious’ to now ‘moderate’. The progress made to date is indeed impressive and offers real hope for the future. As normally defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (the inability to meet minimum food requirements over a sustained period of time) hunger has declined by approximately 30 per cent since 2000. 

Underpinning this progress are reductions in four key areas − the actual rate of undernourishment, child stunting (impaired physical and mental growth due to poor nutrition), child wasting (thinness as a result of severe weight loss due to acute starvation and/or severe disease) and child mortality.

This progress is immense good news and highlights what can be done if the right mix of commitment and policy are employed.

Despite this, the number of undernourished people rose from 785 million in 2015 to 822 million in 2018. If we take a broader look at the picture, about 17.2 per cent of world population (1.3 billion people) experience food insecurity at ‘moderate levels’, meaning they do not have regular access to nutritious and sufficient food with all that this implies in terms of human well-being. About 151 million children are ‘stunted’ and 51 million children are ‘wasted’ worldwide. 

When added to the numbers experiencing ‘severe levels of food insecurity’, an estimated 26.4 per cent or two billion people experience ongoing hunger today.

The agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed internationally in 2015 committed both developed and developing countries to achieving zero hunger by 2030. We are not on track to meet that goal and if the current patterns and trends continue an estimated 50 countries will fail to achieve ‘low hunger’ levels by 2030. The numbers of hungry people remain highest in South Asia (especially India) and Africa South of the Sahara.

And this is occurring in a world that has never been richer and where there is more than enough food to feed all. It is also occurring in a context where an estimated 890 million adults and children are obese and where some one-third of all food produced is simply wasted.

26.4 per cent or two billion people experience ongoing hunger today

These realities characterise World Food Day in 2019.

The causes of world hunger have been well-researched and reported over many decades; so too has the detail of those groups most vulnerable to hunger. Poverty, inequality, the deepening climate crisis, violent conflict and war and recurring economic crises drive hunger worldwide. While population growth rates remain high in some countries, overall world population growth rates peaked in 1962-1963 and have declined by half since.

According to the detailed annual Global Hunger Index, of the countries for which data is available, hunger is reported as ‘alarming or extremely alarming’ in five of them. The Central African Republic suffers from a level of hunger that is extremely alarming and four others − Chad, Madagascar, Yemen and Zambia – have levels that are alarming. Forty-three of the 117 countries ranked by the Index have ’serious’ levels of hunger.

The climate crisis multiplies and deepens hunger. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of extreme weather-related disasters has doubled, reducing major crop yields, hiking food prices and increasing the numbers of the vulnerable. It has also propelled migration from climate crisis prone regions.

As is all too often the case, such crises have impacted hardest on the poor and those with low income, shaping their access to adequate and secure food. Future predictions as regards climate crises indicate higher average temperatures in most land and ocean regions, more extreme patterns and events, heavy precipitation and increased probability of drought. All of these trends will compound the challenge of reducing and eliminating hunger.

Growing inequality also directly impacts on hunger. Income inequality continues to rise in nearly half of all countries worldwide, including those with high levels of hunger. Many countries in Africa and Asia have seen large increases in income inequality since 2000. The incidence of severe food insecurity is almost three times higher in countries with high-income inequality compared to countries with low-income inequality.

Inequality in the distribution of key resources such as land, water, capital, finance, education and health ensure that the poor do not participate equally in and benefit from economic growth. Given that the poor spend a higher percentage of available income on food, this increases vulnerability and slows progress in reducing both malnutrition and food insecurity. 

The combination of unhealthy, meat-saturated diets, sedentary lifestyles and the growth of industrialised food systems have generated a growing obesity crisis in both developed and developing countries, presenting the bizarre spectacle of hunger and obesity coexisting side by side.

Food waste contributes greatly to the issue of hunger, not simply for the food ‘lost’ but also for the resources wasted globally in producing such wasted food. Between 2004 and 2014, household food waste across the EU (including Malta) doubled. Internationally, fully one-third of all food produced for human consumption is ‘lost’ or wasted, equivalent to 1.3 billion tons annually.

Clearly, tackling the question of world hunger requires action on a number of fronts from the individual to the household, the national and international levels. Recent research (in, for example, Bangladesh and Ethiopia) on the strategies that have proved most immediately effective suggest a number of actions, chief among them a direct focus on those most at risk.

Ensuring rising household income linked directly to ‘pro-poor economic growth’ (much hyped ‘trickle down’ models of growth), a focus on the education of parents (especially mothers) as well as on basic health and sanitation, all issues considered to be ‘nutrition sensitive’.

In particular, targeting of the ‘ultra-poor’ (or those who eat below 80 per cent of their energy requirements despite spending at least 80 per cent of their income on food the majority of whom tend to be landless rural women) has produced significant positive results.

World hunger remains overwhelmingly a problem of development (or, more accurately underdevelopment). Simply stated, poverty is the number one cause of world hunger. While the debates rage on measuring poverty meaningfully across different regions of the world, the World Bank conservatively estimates that 10 per cent of the world’s population survived on less than $1.90 per day in 2016. It is equally important to remember that over 75 per cent of the world poorest grow their own food. They need to remain our priority focus.

Note: The two most useful and reliable reports on world hunger: the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, published annually by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, and the Global Hunger Index, published by NGOs Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide.

Colm Regan is a human rights teacher and activist.

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