World hunger was set to end by 2030 — that was a goal set by United Nations in 2015. After years of progress reducing numbers of undernourished people since 1960, reaching zero hunger by 2030 seemed like an attainable target for the international community.
But now, "the fight against hunger is dangerously off track," the latest Global Hunger Index indicates.
Over the past two years, economic fallout from the pandemic, climate change and armed conflict have fueled a sharp increase in the number of people going hungry around the world, according to the report by nongovernmental organizations Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide.
The study, released Thursday, comes not long after the United Nations published data showing that the number of people who did not get adequate nutrition last year increased 320 million to 2.4 billion — amounting to nearly a third of the world's population. This increase is equivalent to that of the previous five years combined.
"We can clearly see that progress is slowing or even reversing," said Miriam Wiemers, one of the authors of the index.
Beyond undernourishment and availability of calories, the index monitors other factors such as diet quality, stunted growth among children and child mortality.
"These factors reflect the long-term effects of hunger on the population health, and on children's physical, mental and cognitive development," Wiemers added.
The index reveals how about 50 countries around the world are in an alarming or serious situation, meaning that hunger affects a significant part of their population.
Climate change aggravates hunger
A2021 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, a UN agency) connects global warming — in particular, more frequent and intense weather events such as storms, floods and droughts — to increased food insecurity.
"One of the reasons that [sub-Saharan] Africa has higher levels of hunger is because of lack of preparedness for climate change challenges," said Joe Mzinga, a spokesperson of ESAFF, a network small-scale farmers in eastern and southern Africa.
Reliance on a single type of crop makes the population particularly vulnerable to climate change, Mzinga explained.
"One of the biggest challenges that we're facing is the loss of biodiversity and the push for quite specific types of crops, which in the case of South and East Africa, is maize.
"Maize needs plenty of water [to grow], so a shortage of rainfall quickly leads to a food crisis."
With these trends, there is also an unaddressed element of climate justice. "We have countries with less share of carbon emission that carry the burden of climate change," Wiemers pointed out.
Pandemic worsens existing challenges
Supply chain breakdowns and restrictions attempting to stem the spread of COVID-19 simultaneously caused consumer prices to increase and producer prices to fall, decreasing food security for the urban and rural poor, the FAO reports.
Add to that how pandemic curfews in many African and Asian countries inadvertently led to food losses, as drivers who normally transported fresh produce during the cooler nighttime hours were no longer able to do so.
The pandemic also revealed how higher-income countries are similarly vulnerable to food price increases and shortages. According to government reports in the United States, prices of meat, poultry, fish and eggs rose 5.9% over last year, and were up 15.7% compared to August 2019.
Due to the enduring impacts of the pandemic on the world's economy, the number of people who are estimated to be undernourished by 2030 will rise by 30 million, the FAO report showed.
Separately, other studies indicate 2.6 million children could suffer from stunted growth between 2020 and 2022 in low- and middle-income countries, compared with pre-pandemic expectations.
Vicious circle of hunger and violence
Violent conflict can cripple every aspect of a food system. In conflict regions, crops are destroyed, livestock is stolen and people are driven off their land.
During a war, "we cannot continue with production as usual, and we can't access markets as usual," Mzinga said.
Conflict is a major driver of hunger in eight out of 10 countries with alarming or extremely alarming levels of hunger, the index report says. Violent conflicts are increasing in number, as well as becoming more severe, it added.
As conflict contributes to hunger, heightened food insecurity can contribute to violent conflict in a vicious cycle. As competition over scarce resources mounts, ethnic and religious divisions are more likely to spur conflict, a 2017 study by the World Food Program shows.
"Without resolving food insecurity, it is difficult to build sustainable peace, and without peace the likelihood of ending global hunger is minimal," the index report stated.
Fighting hunger is not only about reaching our policy's target; it's about people's right to access adequate and nutritious food, Wiemers said.
"It's a basic human right. So right now, we have millions of people around the world whose human rights are violated on a daily basis," she concluded.