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Pandemic brings highest global hunger rate in 12 years

Nearly one of every 10 people on earth is undernourished, a huge increase in global hunger in a world wracked by the pandemic, said the United Nations on Monday. In an annual report on world nutrition, the UN said around 768 million people — more than population of Europe — were hungry in 2020, an increase of 118 million people since the arrival of the coronavirus.

The hunger rate of 9.9% was the highest since 2009, and was the third consecutive annual increase, a rebuke to global pledges six years ago to end hunger by 2030. Without bold action, the goal will be out of reach, said the report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition 2021, also known as SOFI.

“Around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030, in part due to the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on global security — 30 million more people than in a scenario in which the pandemic had not occurred,” said the report. “The number of people facing hunger may be close to double the population of the United States or triple that of Brazil.”

David Beasley, director of the World Food Program, said the SOFI report “highlights a devastating reality: The path to Zero Hunger is being stopped dead in its tracks by conflict, climate and COVID-19.”

An estimated 418 million people, more than half of the global hunger total, live in Asia and more than one-third, or 282 million, live in Africa; 60 million of the hungry are in Latin America and the Caribbean; and one fifth of Africans are undernourished, more than double the rate in other regions.

The economic slowdown that accompanied the pandemic cut into the income or eliminated jobs for millions of people. Although commodity prices fell in early 2020, food prices soon increased amid spot shortages. The FAO’s Food Price Index last month was 34% higher than in June 2020.

Much of the increase in hunger was “likely due to the fallout of COVID-19,” said the five UN agencies that wrote the SOFI report, although “the pandemic’s impact has yet to be fully mapped.” Warfare and climate change also were factors.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the food security and nutrition of millions of people around the world,” said the report. It called for a “food system transformation,” that could include elimination of less nutritious foods such as trans fats, increasing the availability of fruits and vegetables at lower prices, providing cash or in-kind support during pandemic-style shocks, or enhancing climate resilience among smallholder farmers.

Besides hunger, other measures of malnutrition worsened: 30% of the world, or 2.3 billion people, lacked access year-round to adequate food, an increase of nearly 4 points in one year. Gender inequality deepened; there were 11 food-insecure women, up from 10.6 in 2019, for every 10 food insecure men. And more than 149 million children under age 5 were too short for their age due to malnutrition.

“A full 3 billion adults and children remained locked out of healthy diets, largely due to excessive costs,” said the report.

The SOFI report is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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