Global hunger enters a grim ‘new normal’

Global hunger enters a grim ‘new normal’

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While the fact that there wasn’t a major increase in global hunger between 2021 and 2022 could be viewed as a positive sign, there are a lot more negative trends to be gleaned from the United Nations’ annual flagship report on global food security, which was released last week. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that between 691 million and 783 million people faced hunger last year. The midrange of that calculation, about 735 million, is 122 million more people going hungry than in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic shook the world.

This year’s report — “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023” — also found that nearly 30 percent of humanity, or roughly 2.4 billion people, lacked access to adequate food in 2022, while an even greater number — 3.1 billion people — were unable to afford a healthy diet. It projected that by the end of the decade, despite significant poverty alleviation initiatives, some 600 million people will still be chronically undernourished, a blow to U.N.-outlined goals of eliminating hunger by 2030.

Measuring hunger is a complicated task. For sweeping analyses such as that of the FAO, chronic hunger is defined as “the long-term or persistent inability to meet minimum dietary energy requirements,” and it’s calculated to be representative of the whole population. The conclusions from this year’s U.N. report point to a world where hundreds of millions of people face more precarious circumstances, deepened by the ravages of climate change and regional economic turmoil.

“Recovery from the global pandemic has been uneven, and the war in Ukraine has affected the nutritious food and healthy diets,” Qu Dongyu, director general of the FAO, said in a statement. “This is the ‘new normal’ where climate change, conflict, and economic instability are pushing those on the margins even further from safety.”

Africa’s desperate hunger: Ukraine war pushes Somalia toward famine

The consequences of mounting hunger among poor communities are stark. In 2022, according to the U.N. children’s agency, 148 million children under the age 5 were “stunted” — that is, their inadequate diets impaired their growth. Another 45 million children were “wasted” — that is, severely impacted by a lack of nutrition over a short period of time so that they measured too thin for their height.

The U.N. report pointed to relative success stories in alleviating hunger in Asia and Latin America, as economies lurched out of the pandemic. But there were less encouraging signs in Africa and West Asia, an expanse of geography that encompasses the Middle East and Afghanistan. In these countries, a confluence of events — conflict, extreme weather events and surging food prices — exposed the fragility of local economies and challenged a humanitarian sector short of funding.

There was also the undeniable downstream effect of the war in Ukraine. “Today, we’re missing around 11 million tons of wheat exports that traditionally have gone to the poorest countries,” Isobel Coleman, deputy director of USAID, told The Washington Post last month. “That’s just a huge impact on the world and on the global supply chain for food.”

Consider the situation in Somalia, which international organizations warned was in de facto famine toward the end of last year after an extended, unprecedented drought. The United Nations estimated that some 43,000 Somalis died due to the conditions, though a surge of humanitarian support staved off an even more dire outcome. This year, though, close to 7 million Somalis are still projected to face crisis levels of food insecurity.

“Somalia was hauled back from the abyss of famine in 2022 because the international community saw the warning signs flashing red and raced to respond,” Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Program (WFP), told the U.N. Security Council last month. “But now we are in danger of losing the precious gains we have made since those dark days last year.”

There’s no escaping climate change as extreme weather events abound

U.N. officials point to stagnation in the global system, which has worrying implications at a time where the effects of climate change are posing more challenges for the global agriculture sector, with an increase in heat waves, heavy rains and flooding wrecking crops and casting more uncertainty over commodity markets.

Alvaro Lario, president of the International Fund for Agriculture Development, another U.N. agency, said at a think tank event in Washington last week that the new global hunger figures effectively took the world back to where it was in 2015, when all the U.N.’s member states adopted its sustainable development goals. He noted that many countries in Africa face significant challenges with public debt, a structural reality that contributes to inflation and food crises.

“We are dealing with countries that don’t actually have the fiscal capacity, the fiscal space,” Lario said, adding that much of the development conversation now grapples with “not having these countries choose between health and food security, or having to choose between infrastructure and just being able to feed their population.”

At the same time, U.N. officials are worried that the need to feed and provide for an expanding world of vulnerable communities will not be met by a humanitarian donor complex in the West that is struggling to muster the resources required. The war in Ukraine has diverted aid from European governments and narrowed the pool of donors for crises elsewhere.

In a news briefing last week, WFP Chief Economist Arif Husain said that his agency, which delivered food aid to more than 160 million in 2022, has now received a third-less funding than at this point last year.

“My concern is that moving forward we are looking at huge funding cuts,” he said.

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