Global hunger fell for decades, but it's rising again

A newly emerged crop stands in a field on a farm near Chinchilla, 250 km (155 miles) west of Brisbane October 30, 2011. With a surge of popular support for measures ranging from more regulation to an outright ban on drilling, the coal-seam gas industry, an industry spreading rapidly across the Australian landscape, faces the prospect of project delays, higher costs and even blockades that have already succeeded in delaying drilling. Picture taken October 30, 2011. To match Insight AUSTRALIA-GAS/   REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AUSTRALIA - Tags: ENERGY ENVIRONMENT BUSINESS POLITICS AGRICULTURE) - RTR2U35E
Almost 690 million people in the world were undernourished in 2019.
Image: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne
  • Almost 690 million people in the world were undernourished in 2019 – that’s 8.9% of the world population, a new UN report says.
  • This figure could exceed 840 million by 2030, if current trends continue.
  • Factors increasing global hunger include economic slowdowns and extreme weather events.
  • The UN warns that without efforts to reform global food systems, its target of zero hunger by 2030 will be missed.

There are almost 60 million more undernourished people now than in 2014.

For decades leading up to the millennium, there were record harvests, incomes rose and food prices fell. That’s no longer the case.

In the past half decade things have been going backwards and could continue to worsen, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasts in its annual review of the world’s food security and nutrition.

It’s a vision it describes as “an alarming scenario”.

Reforms to global food systems could help matters, but it won’t be easy and the full ripple effects of COVID-19 are still to be felt.

The number of undernourished people in the world continued to increase in 2019.
Almost 690 million people in the world are estimated to have been undernourished in 2019.
Image: UN FAO

What does the report say?

With improved data, the FAO says it has greater confidence than ever in its latest estimates of world hunger.

Food insecurity – both moderate and severe – has “consistently increased” since 2014, when the prevalence of under-nourishment was at 8.6%. It is now at 8.9%. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of hungry people grew by 10 million people.

The majority of this increase has come from Asia, where the majority of undernourished people live – some 381 million. But Africa’s hungry population is the fastest growing and currently stands at 250 million.

There have been some positive developments. Fresh data from China showing how the country has improved diets over many years has enabled the FAO to revise down the number of hungry people it previously estimated had been in the world since 2000.

And between 2000 and 2019, the global prevalence of “child stunting” – impaired growth – declined by one-third.


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

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose's impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

There is also the complicating factor of obesity: just as the world is getting hungrier, every world region is also becoming more overweight. However, the FAO cautions that this should not be confused with improved nutrition – food insecurity often causes poor diets and weight gain.

The FAO report.
The FAO report enables readers to visualize hunger patterns through an interactive world map.
Image: UN FAO

Why is hunger getting worse?

When people get poorer they get hungry.

Since the 2009-9 financial crisis, economic slowdowns have hit many economies. The past decade has also brought a rising amount of debt to many poorer nations, which the FAO says has reduced growth. It may be one reason why almost 10% of the global population survives on $1.90 a day or less.

The report also identifies a high level of “commodity-import dependence” – a reliance on food and goods from outside a country’s borders that can increase food prices and scarcity. This has been seen during the pandemic as some countries have restricted food exports.

Added to this are conflicts, violence and “altered weather conditions.” And then there’s pests – such as locust swarms, which could leave millions at risk of starvation this year.

How the COVID-19 pandemic may affect hunger in the world: Three scenarios.
Much will depend on the eventual impact of COVID-19 on hunger.
Image: UN FAO

The COVID-19 impact

The FAO doesn’t know exactly what the virus will do to global hunger yet – it’s too early to say. However, whatever the scenario, it is expected to worsen food security and nutrition. The reasons include food supply disruption, which has already happened, albeit less catastrophically than some had feared.

The pandemic could increase the total number of undernourished people in the world by between 83 and 132 million in 2020. Although, earlier this year, the UN World Food Programme was forecasting an even more bleak scenario.

What can be done?

“Reducing the costs of nutritious foods and ensuring the affordability of healthy diets for everyone requires significant transformations of existing food systems worldwide,” the FAO says.

Clearly this will not be easy. International trade barriers and rising tariffs may have to be lowered, while agricultural policies will need to be shifted towards a more “nutrition-sensitive investment”, such as supporting fruit and vegetable crops.

In fact in many areas government policy will be key, from changing the taxation of energy-dense foods to improved regulation of food industries and better policies to support nutrition education.

This is why, despite the considerable challenges, the FAO says there are “significant opportunities” too.

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