This article has been updated.
One in nine people around the world don’t have enough to eat, and numbers the are rising.
According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018, by five UN agencies, 821 million people went hungry last year.
After falling steadily between 2005 and 2014, the number of undernourished people increased in 2015, rising for a third consecutive year in 2017.
While the report contains pockets of good news – such as a slight decline in the prevalence of stunting and a rise in exclusive breastfeeding – it warns that, if the trend continues, the world will fall far short of delivering on the UN's 2030 goal of eradicating hunger.
What is hunger?
Although hunger is on the rise, many people in the developed world don’t really understand what it means to go hungry.
Hunger can manifest itself in different ways – undernourishment, malnutrition and wasting.
According to the World Food Programme, undernourishment occurs when people do not take in enough calories to meet minimum physiological needs. Malnutrition is when people have an inadequate intake of protein, energy and micronutrients. Starved of the right nutrition, they can die from common infections such as measles or diarrhoea. Wasting, usually the result of starvation or disease, is an indicator of acute malnutrition with substantial weight loss.
What is food insecurity?
Being uncertain about where your next meal will come from – that’s food insecurity. The FAO defines it as a “situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development, and an active and healthy life”.
According to the new report, severe food insecurity has been increasing in all sub-regions of Africa and in South America.
How is hunger measured?
To measure progress, the UN calculates the proportion of people in a country’s population who are undernourished. This means people whose food consumption is continuously below a minimum level of dietary energy requirement for maintaining an acceptable minimum body size and leading a healthy active life.
Every year, the FAO estimates the proportion of people who do not have access to enough food by using national agricultural and trade statistics from each country to estimate how much food is available and survey data to determine how food consumption varies among families.
In addition, it uses a Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), a survey that asks about people’s ability to access food, to top up the data. Respondents are asked whether, in the past 12 months, because of a lack of money or other resources, there was a time when they were hungry but did not eat or went without eating for a whole day.
Hunger and climate change
The report notes that the situation has become ever more critical as the climate crisis worsens.
Climate variability and extremes are among the key drivers behind the recent uptick in global hunger and one of the leading causes of severe food crises, the report says.
Climate extremes ruin crops and have a knock-on effect on food prices. In addition, severe weather can bring about an increase in diseases that can cause diarrhoea. This means that even less nutrients are absorbed, risking further undernourishment, particularly in children.
Conflict is also a major cause of hunger. In 2017, 14 out of the 34 food-crisis countries experienced the double impact of both conflict and climate shocks, which led to significant increases in the severity of acute food insecurity.
Can we end hunger?
There is still a long road ahead to achieving a world without hunger and malnutrition.
The prevalence of stunting – where a child doesn’t grow as much as it should for its age because of malnutrition – is indeed declining. However, one in five children (22.2%) under 5 years old were affected in 2017. That’s nearly 151 million children.
Wasting continues to affect over 50 million children under the age of five globally and these children are at increased risk of morbidity and mortality.
Some nourishment goals, such as exclusive breastfeeding, are off target, and others, such as maternal anaemia and adult obesity, are heading in the wrong direction altogether.
The report concludes that to continue to combat world hunger, countries need to combine disaster risk reduction with climate change adaptation.