World Hunger Rises with Climate Shocks, Conflict and Economic Slumps

A UN report shows an estimated 2 billion people now face moderate or severe food insecurity as the planet warms.

A woman in Zimbabwe inspects a stunted cob in her dry maize field in March 2019. Eastern Zimbabwe has been struggling with drought-induced hunger, adding to the 2 billion people facing food insecurity around the world. Credit: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty
A woman in Zimbabwe inspects a stunted cob in her dry maize field in March 2019. Eastern Zimbabwe has been struggling with drought-induced hunger. An estimated 2 billion people currently face food insecurity around the world. Credit: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

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The combined forces of climate change, conflict and economic stagnation are driving more people around the world into hunger, reversing earlier progress, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported on Monday.

Although the numbers fluctuate as economies rise and fall, conflicts come and go, and climate emergencies intensify and recede, the prevalence of hunger remains stubbornly high. In 2015, rates of hunger began to rise after decades of progress, and while the rates have now stabilized, the overall number of undernourished people is still rising as the population expands.

The FAO estimates that 820 million people suffered from malnourishment, up from 785 million in 2015. Overall, nearly 2 billion people face either moderate or severe food insecurity, meaning they don’t have regular access to nutritious food, the FAO reports.

“Economic shocks are contributing to prolonging and worsening the severity of food crises caused primarily by conflict and climate shocks,” the FAO warns in the new report.


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It finds that countries experiencing economic declines or those slow to recover from the 2008-2009 global economic downturn are seeing rising hunger and food insecurity. Those most severely affected are in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Western Asia, but hunger is also increasing in middle-income countries. Of the 77 countries where hunger levels rose, 66 experienced an economic slowdown or downturn between 2011 and 2017.

In previous reports, the FAO explored other primary drivers of hunger, including conflict and climate change. “Overall, it is hard to separate the contribution of each of the three drivers individually to prevalence of undernourishment. This is because economic shocks can directly contribute to undernourishment but also indirectly by exacerbating the effects of conflict and climate shocks,” explained Arif Husain, of the World Food Program, which co-published the new report.

“We do, however, know that in 2018 at least 113 million people experienced acute hunger at crises and emergency levels,” he said. “Conflict was the key driver for 74 million people; followed by climate vulnerability as the main reason for another 29 million people; and economic shocks as the primary driver for 10 million people.”

The report underscores the complex interplay among climate change, conflict and economic stagnation and their combined impact on malnourishment. In drought-ravaged parts of Central America for example, a prolonged drought is stoking higher hunger rates and migration to the region’s cities and northward to the United States.

The report also emphasized the urgent need for addressing the role of climate change in threatening global food production, particularly as the global population soars.

“We need food systems that are sustainable, nutritious, inclusive and efficient,” Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said Monday at UN headquarters in New York, where the report was released. “This means supporting a system that first protects the planet and second provides nutritious and diverse food.”

“It is crystal clear to me that any single project today has to automatically embed a climate change dimension,” Houngbo said. Otherwise, he said, any action you want to take will not be sustainable.

Climate Change Makes It Harder to End Hunger

Monday’s report is the latest this month to emphasize the profound impact of climate change on the ability to sustain the increasing demands of the global diet.

In its latest annual progress report on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by global leaders in 2015, the UN said the world was not on track to achieve the first two goals—reducing extreme poverty and ending hunger—largely because of climate change.

“The most urgent area for action is climate change,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Liu Zhenmin wrote in his introduction to the report.

“If we do not cut record-high greenhouse gas emissions now, global warming is projected to reach 1.5°C in the coming decades,” he wrote. “As we are already seeing, the compounded effects will be catastrophic and irreversible: increasing ocean acidification, coastal erosion, extreme weather conditions, the frequency and severity of natural disasters, continuing land degradation, loss of vital species and the collapse of ecosystems.”

The key to reducing hunger rates will be helping small-scale farmers become more resilient and better equipped to withstand climate-related weather extremes, the report said. But it noted that government spending on agriculture and aid to farmers from member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has fallen precipitously since the 1980s.

Much of Expected Crop Rise Will Go to Livestock

Last week, the OECD, along with the FAO, published another report showing that agricultural production is expected to rise 15 percent over the next decade, largely because of technological advancements.

Much of the expected increase in crop production will go toward livestock, feeding a growing demand for protein and dairy products, especially from developing countries and China.

That means agriculture’s carbon footprint will continue to be significant, the report says.

The findings also point to another important problem in global food distribution: That while agriculture production is on the rise, adequate nutrition doesn’t always reach people equally.

“Frankly, we already produce over 4 billion tons of food annually, of which a third is wasted,” Husain, of the World Food Program, explained. “Bottom line—we produce more than enough to feed everyone today despite all this waste. Increasing production is good but it won’t solve the hunger problem unless we make food affordable and accessible to all—particularly those living in conflict stricken places around the world.”

ICN reporter Nina Pullano contributed to this report from the UN.