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UN report: Pandemic fueled hunger in 2020

July 12, 2021

The economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are linked to one of the sharpest increases in hunger in decades, a UN annual report found.

A man picks up bread while surrounded by children in Yemen.
Though the pandemic took its toll, the worst food shortages persist in conflict areas like YemenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/XinHuan/M. Mohammed

A United Nations report published on Monday found that the coronavirus pandemic had contributed to an increase in the number of people facing hunger worldwide.

The report's conclusion is a setback to the UN's efforts to ensure people have adequate access to food, with the world already off track to achieve the goal of eradicating hunger by 2030.

What did the report find?

UN agencies reported an estimated 18% increase in hunger rates as 118 million more people faced hunger in 2020 than in 2019.

Taking the middle estimate of three possible figures, 768 million people, it would equate to almost exactly 10% of the world's population. 

The report's authors concluded that in 2020 hunger was "outpacing population growth."

"Nearly one in three people in the world [2.37 billion] did not have access to adequate food in 2020 — an increase of almost 320 million people in just one year," the annual food security and nutrition report said.

According to the report, Africa saw the sharpest rise in hunger, with 21% of its population estimated to be undernourished.

Around 149 million children younger than 5 were estimated to have stunted growth as they were too short for their age. More than 45 million children weighed too little compared to their height. 

"A full 3 billion adults and children remain locked out of healthy diets, largely due to excessive costs,'' the UN agencies said.

Meanwhile, nearly 39 million children were overweight, the report noted.

COVID to blame? 

Although the full impact of the pandemic cannot yet be determined, the report said the economic downturn affected almost all low- and middle-income countries.

Based on the trends highlighted in the report, the UN's goal of eradicating hunger by 2030 would be "missed by a margin of nearly 660 million people," the authors said, noting that some 30 million of that figure "may be linked to the pandemic's lasting effects."

But the pandemic "is just the tip of the iceberg," the report said. 

"More alarmingly, the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities forming in our food systems over recent years as a result of major drivers such as conflict, climate variability and extremes, and economic slowdowns and downturns."

The UN secretary-general said the tragic data highlighted in the report showed that "addressing hunger and malnutrition cannot be done in isolation of other global challenges." 

Can the trend be reversed? 

The report authors said there might be a chance to reverse the dynamic, with two major food and nutrition summits and the COP26 meeting on climate change due this year.

"In a world of plenty, we have no excuse for billions to lack access to a healthy diet. This is why I’m convening a global Food Systems Summit this September," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

"[Investing in] changes in our food systems will initiate a shift to a safer, fairer, more sustainable world. It is one of the smartest – and most necessary investments we can make," he added.

The report was conducted by multiple UN-affiliated agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UNICEF Children's Fund, the World Health Organization, the Ifad Relief Fund and the World Food Program.

fb/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)