Industries in Depth

What are food crises and how many people are affected by them?

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The effects of climate change have a big impact on food security. Image: REUTERS/Josue Decavele

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • 155 million people are caught up in food crises of varying severity.
  • 133,000 people in Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Yemen are most at risk.
  • 10 countries account for two thirds of those facing acute hunger.
  • The resilience of agri-food systems is being eroded by conflict, insecurity and environmental trends.

At least 155 million people are facing acute hunger because of conflict, economic shocks and extreme weather, a new report has found. The Global Report on Food Crises 2021 says the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the risk of severe hunger in some regions of the world.

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The figure marks a new five-year high for global food crises, which affected 55 countries or territories in 2020. The publishers of the report issued a stark warning, saying “If current trends are not reversed, food crises will increase in frequency and severity.”

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

In 2020, 20 million more people than in 2019 experienced acute food insecurity at “crisis or worse levels,” the report found. Around 133,000 people in Burkina Faso, South Sudan, and Yemen faced widespread death and a collapse of livelihoods in the most severe level of food crisis, classified as a ‘catastrophe.’

Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, northern Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Haiti were also amongst the 10 worst affected countries, accounting for two thirds of those most at risk from malnutrition, starvation and death.

a chart highlighting the key findings from the report
Protracted conflict, the economic fallout of COVID-19 and weather extremes worsened global food crises in 2020. Image: Global Report on Food Crises 2021.

Relentless rise

The report is published annually by the Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC), an alliance of the United Nations, the European Union and governmental and non-governmental agencies working together to tackle food crises. It warns that acute food insecurity has been rising relentlessly since 2017.

COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of the global food system and the need for more “equitable, sustainable and resilient systems” to feed 8.5 billion people by 2030, the partners said.

Conflict was the main driver of acute food insecurity, affecting almost 100 million people, up from 77 million in 2019.

Economic shocks, often fuelled by COVID-19, replaced weather events as the second driver of acute food insecurity, both in terms of numbers of people and countries affected. More than 40 million people in 17 countries or territories were impacted, up from 24 million people and eight countries in 2019.

Weather extremes were the main driver of acute food insecurity for 15 million people in 2020, down from 34 million the year before.

What is a food crisis?

Acute food insecurity occurs when a person's inability to access and consume adequate food puts their life or livelihood in immediate danger. It draws on internationally-accepted measures of extreme hunger, such as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) and the Cadre Harmonisé.

The varying levels of food insecurity are ranked across five phases.

Phases 1 and 2 are classified as ‘none/minimal’ and ‘stressed’, respectively.

The three highest levels of food insecurity are labelled ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ and ‘catastrophe’.

In the worst catastrophe/famine level, households have an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs, even after they’ve exhausted all coping strategies such as selling assets.

Causes and solutions

“Long-term environmental, social and economic trends compounded by increasing conflict and insecurity are eroding the resilience of agri-food systems,” the Global Network warns. It hopes to help address these challenges by stepping up efforts to promote resilient agri-food systems that are socially, environmentally and economically sustainable.

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The Global Network Against Food Crises was founded in 2016 by the European Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the UN World Food Programme.

Its approach involves working at global, regional and national levels to improve decision-making, policy and programming. The three dimensions of the Global Network’s approach are around understanding food crises; leveraging strategic investments in food security, nutrition and agriculture – and going ‘beyond food’. This is about fostering political will and coordination across clusters and sectors to address the underlying drivers of food crises.

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Industries in DepthFood and WaterEquity, Diversity and InclusionGeo-Economics and Politics
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