Hunger and famine have dogged humanity all through history, but in recent decades, it looked as though we were winning the fight. The number of people going hungry in the world was falling. In percentage terms it halved between 1990 and 2015 – and that, unfortunately, is where progress has stopped.
Here are the percentages (grey line) and the numbers (orange line) of people malnourished today, according to the UN FAO’s latest State of Food Security report.
Some 820 million people are undernourished, 1 in 9 of us. Over twice that number struggle to get nutritious and healthy food. There are over a billion people facing food insecurity in Asia alone. Women and children are disproportionately affected.
We are failing the challenge of feeding the world.
Why? The FAO give three main reasons:
War: chronic hunger is often the result of conflict. People are on the move, and agriculture collapses. Supply chains break down and shortages are common. Crops may be looted or destroyed. Some of that reversal in the fight against hunger is due to conflict, including the Yemen and South Sudan.
We will never reach the UN’s stated target of zero hunger without concerted peace-building and new approaches to conflict resolution. This is a particularly important message for countries like Britain, the USA or Russia, that profit from arms sales.
Poverty: it goes without saying that hunger and poverty are related, and some of the places where hunger is on the rise again have experienced an economic downturn. Economic growth is vital in countries where people don’t have enough, and equality matters too – growth is wasted if it never reaches those who need it most. “Economic growth alone is not sufficient to reduce extreme poverty or improve food security and nutrition. Inequality… is critical in understanding why this is so.”
This aspect of the problem could get worse when (and it is when, not if) the next global slowdown arrives.
Climate: the unfolding crisis of global warming is a major contributor to hunger. Changes of temperature and rainfall patterns make agriculture more unpredictable and insecure. Then there are extremes to contend with, heatwaves, storms or floods that destroy crops. The FAO’s report for 2016 looked at climate change in more detail.
What’s important to note is how these three factors inter-relate. A climate change related natural disaster could create an economic slowdown. A slowdown could spark a conflict.
It’s also important to understand that global power structures are in play here. Inequality has a role – the number of billionaires has doubled in the last decade. The global economy is tilted massively in favour of the richest, and these are deep systemic problems. It is not enough to consider hunger to be a problem for poor countries to solve, not when the world’s wealth is shared so badly.
The breakdown of the climate is also to do with power, as it is disproportionately caused by the richest, who continue to profit from fossil fuels. The consequences – including hunger and famine – fall on those least responsible. This is a huge global injustice, and it makes zero carbon targets an urgent moral imperative. To put it bluntly, the longer overdeveloped countries take to control their carbon emissions, the more people will starve in Asia and Africa. That injustice will not be ignored or forgiven in decades to come.