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Hunger-free world remains a huge challenge, food security report says

Economic shocks, conflict and climate change drive hunger figures up for third year in a row
, Peyvand Khorsandi
A UN camp for displaced people in the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo last year. Photo: WFP/Jacques David

Figures for the number of hungry people across the world have risen for the third year in succession, according to "The of State of Food and Nutrition in the World 2019", also known as the SOFI report.

The report is published jointly by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme (WFP). It is regarded as a yardstick for measuring progress towards UN Sustainable Development Goal 2, Zero Hunger by the year 2030.

Launched on Monday 15 July in New York, SOFI 2019 puts the number of people suffering chronic hunger at 821 million for 2018, an increase of 10 million over the previous year. This means that one in nine people face hunger around the world — Africa is particularly affected with one in five people suffering from hunger.

Stunting — or low height for age — affects 149 million children and around 2 billion people face moderate levels of food insecurity, the report states.

"We reached the moon 50 years ago, now we talk about going to Mars, but we can't feed everyone on the ground," says the WFP's Chief Economist, Arif Husain.

Arif Husain, WFP's Chief Economist, in Rome last week. Photo: WFP/Peyvand Khorsandi

He adds that without a focus on "root causes of hunger like conflict and climate, there's no chance of getting to a hunger-free world."

In terms of reaching the UN's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the world is "going in the opposite direction," he says — the number of hungry people in the world is back up to where it was a decade ago. "You still have conflicts," Husain adds, "you still have climate extremes. And you still have these shocks — big economic shocks."

Events in the Middle East — especially the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq–and climate-related events in countries including Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, El Salvador and Guatemala have exacerbated the hunger problem in recent years. But the key focus of this year's SOFI report is how poorly performing economies negatively impact hunger levels.

Inequality has a severe impact on hunger — severe food insecurity is almost three times higher in countries with high levels of income inequality.

"This is particularly hard on low-income countries where inequalities increase the likelihood of severe food insecurity by 20 percent compared to middle-income countries."

The chances of being food-insecure are approximately 10 percent higher for women than for men.

"We have conflict in many African countries, and when you combine that with climate extremes and economic marginalization, you see 20 percent more people are undernourished today," says Husain.

Countries where hunger is driven by both climate and conflict include Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

"We should be talking about the hunger challenge very loudly and clearly," says Husain. "There is a huge intergenerational cost in the sense of children suffering from stunting and wasting."

"It's a financial cost, a social cost and a political cost — if we don't address things like that in a globalized world it will breed extremism, displacement and conflict. So, conflict feeds on itself."

Kondougou, a village in Mali supported by WFP, in May 2018. Photo: WFP/Cecilia Aspe

Husain emphasises the importance of nutrition for children because a "weak start" for the next generation can only exacerbate the problem of hunger.

"If you're not nourished in the first 1,000 days of your life — from conception to your second birthday — you never achieve your full productivity, or at least, it's very difficult … you're talking about a marginalized next generation."

It is a cost no country can ignore, he says. "It's no longer somebody else's problem. And if we don't solve these problems, we pay one way or the other. So, we're better off paying now — and paying less — than paying more later."

Key to changing the fortunes of countries where hunger persists is the "empowerment of women in the agricultural sector because it's 47 percent of the labour force," says Husain. "Imagine if you are not using half of your labour force, how do you expect to do well?"

Husain is encouraged, however, by the "renewed acknowledgement that this level of hunger in the world should be unacceptable in the 21st century" — he credits this with the passing of UN Security Council resolution 2417, last year, which recognizes the link between hunger and conflict and condemns the use of starvation as a weapon of war.

We must maintain the pressure to bring an end to war, he believes, and to try and reach a world with Zero Hunger.

"If you're committed, if you make enough noise, if you make sure that the responsibility and accountability is with the governments, and we are there to help, we can get it done."

Read the SOFI 2019 report