1 in 11 people go to bed hungry every night. That needs to change

A pregnant woman burns wood on the street to cook a meal for her husband and their daughter outside their home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, September 16, 2022

A pregnant woman burns wood on the street to cook a meal for her husband and their daughter outside their home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, September 16, 2022. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

735m people still face hunger, as 'new normal' of conflict, economic insecurity and climate change stall progress

Máximo Torero Cullen is chief economist at the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

In 2015, world leaders pledged to end hunger, improve food security and nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. Since then, around 146 million more people around the world are experiencing the pain and weakness that comes from not having enough to eat.

The main driver of the shocking rise in the number of people facing hunger worldwide since 2019 has been the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected incomes and health around the world. But even as the pandemic recedes and livelihoods recover, hunger numbers are staying stubbornly high.

Last year, one in eleven people went to bed hungry. At an estimated 735 million in total, this represents barely any change from last year, and is 122 million more than in 2019, before the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and repeated weather shocks. Meanwhile, in 2022 nearly 3.1 billion people – or 42 percent - survived on starchy staples because they couldn’t afford better diets – a slight improvement on the year before, but still 134 million more than in 2019.

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This is the new normal. Covid-19 gave the world a dramatic shock, but the background context of rising inequality, economic uncertainty, climate change and conflict represent a more lasting obstacle to progress.

Africa is the worst affected continent, with nearly 1 in 5 people there not getting enough calories - more than double anywhere else. And although overall global numbers remain steady, in Africa, as well as in Western Asia and the Caribbean, the number of hungry people is actually rising.

This indicates the unevenness of the recovery and the importance of looking beyond the headlines to see how different countries, people, and regions are faring. For example, more women than men face food insecurity in every single region of the world.

Meanwhile, with almost seven in ten people projected to live in cities by 2050, recognising and understanding the ‘megatrend’ of urbanisation will be critical for policymakers. While this trend is not recent, what has changed is that there is not such a clear divide between urban and rural areas anymore. For example, food purchases are significant among not only urban households, but also among those residing far from urban centres; and consumption of highly processed foods is increasing in peri-urban and rural areas in some countries, as well as in cities.

One of the saddest sets of statistics in our research, done in collaboration with four other UN agencies, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization, are those relating to stunting and wasting - conditions that affect the growing bodies of babies and children, harming them irreparably and unjustly. Little progress has been made on this front with 148.1 million children under five short for their age (stunted), and 45 million underweight for their height (wasted) worldwide.

Not eating enough nutritious food has long-lasting effects on people’s lives. It harms educational and professional outcomes; it dampens countries’ economic prospects; it affects mothers’ abilities to nourish their babies and blights the lives of children forever.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The world has enough food and funds to feed everyone. What is needed is political will and targeted investment- in the short and long term. We need to address the immediate crises by integrating humanitarian, development and peace building policies to ensure that food reaches those most at risk of starvation, but also commit to system transformation so the crisis does not perpetuate.

Transforming agrifood systems to deliver food and healthy diets will require significant financial investment. For low- and middle-income countries, around $425 billion of additional investment per year will be needed, while significant safety nets will have to be put in place to guarantee access to healthy food to everyone.

Meeting this target will require actions on several fronts including realigning public expenditures, in particular agricultural subsidies, and achieving greater public-private and blended financing, while at the same time increasing effectiveness and efficiency of investment. We also need to look at the way food is produced, stored and distributed, as well as at who is able to access what they need, and who isn’t.

Longer term, countries that import food should find new and more diverse suppliers and take this as an opportunity to increase their resilience. Countries should also be doing more to promote free trade within their regions, especially in Africa. Regional exports can mitigate revenue losses from distant markets, and imports can boost food availability and stabilize local food prices.

Business as usual is not an option anymore. If the pledge made by global leaders in 2015 is to mean anything, we need to redouble our efforts as an international community and turn the trend around.

This is not just a story of thwarted multilateral ambitions; it is not just a line on a graph. This is the experience of 1 in 11 people around the world, who - for reasons beyond their control - cannot feed themselves or their families. We must act now for their sake.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Wealth inequality
  • Race and inequality
  • War and conflict

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