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Global hunger spiked during the pandemic

Children. School children having mid-day meal in school, Radhu Khandu Village, Sikkim, India. Image credit: Keith Levit / 123rf. Illustration of global hunger article.
Schoolchildren consume a meal in school, in the Radhu Khandu village of Sikkim. Children are acutely affected by malnutrition. are Image credit: Keith Levit / 123rf

The COVID-19 pandemic witnessed a spike in global hunger, according to a fresh report from the United Nations (UN).

According to the organisation, “there was a dramatic worsening of world hunger in 2020…much of it likely related to the fallout of COVID-19. While the pandemic’s impact has yet to be fully mapped, a multi-agency report estimates that around a tenth of the global population – up to 811 million people – were undernourished last year. The number suggests it will take a tremendous effort for the world to honour its pledge to end hunger by 2030.” 

This is on the basis of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, jointly published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). As the United Nations notes, “previous editions had already put the world on notice that the food security of millions – many children among them – was at stake.” 

Now, we are at what is termed a “critical juncture” in realising the goals of reducing global hunger to zero – a target enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the UN, “the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger would surpass 840 million by 2030. 

“According to the World Food Programme, 135 million suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change and economic downturns. The COVID-19 pandemic could now double that number, putting an additional 130 million people at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020. With more than a quarter of a billion people potentially at the brink of starvation, swift action needs to be taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions.” 

As for geographical distribution of global hunger, “more than half of all undernourished people (418 million) live in Asia; more than a third (282 million) in Africa; and a smaller proportion (60 million) in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Africa was the worst-affected region by the global hunger spike.

Malnutrition measurements in Madhya Pradesh. Image credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0 (]
Unfortunately, the increase in global hunger during the pandemic exerted a considerable toll on children. According to the UN, “in 2020, over 149 million under-fives are estimated to have been stunted, or too short for their age; more than 45 million – wasted, or too thin for their height; and nearly 39 million – overweight. A full three-billion adults and children remained locked out of healthy diets, largely due to excessive costs. Nearly a third of women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia. Globally, despite progress in some areas – more infants, for example, are being fed exclusively on breast milk – the world is not on track to achieve targets for any nutrition indicators by 2030.” 

It is important to recognise that global hunger is not an issue solely attributable to the COVID-19 crisis. As the UN highlights, “already in the mid-2010s, hunger had started creeping upwards, dashing hopes of irreversible decline. Disturbingly, in 2020 hunger shot up in both absolute and proportional terms, outpacing population growth: some 9.9 percent of all people are estimated to have been undernourished last year, up from 8.4 percent in 2019.” 

India is far from unfamiliar with the toll of hunger. The pandemic exacerbated such woes. Many from impoverished backgrounds feared starvation more than the virus. 

As we noted earlier this year, “India is a country of contrasts. One such contrast is the fact that it is one of the world’s largest food producers – and home to one quarter of the world’s peoples afflicted by starvation.” 

In 2019, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) found that the “child wasting rate is extremely high at 20.8 percent—the highest wasting rate of any country in this report for which data or estimates were available. Its child stunting rate, 37.9 percent, is also categorised as very high in terms of its public health [significance]…in India, just 9.6 percent of all children between six and 23 months of age are fed a minimum acceptable diet.” 

We further noted that “progress has been incremental. Last year, the GHI posited a 37.4 per cent stunting rate among children under five and a wasting rate of 17.3 percent. The under-five mortality rate stood at 3.7 percent. Malnutrition is responsible for two-thirds of child deaths in India.” 

Copyright: rasika108 / 123RF Stock Photo
A malnourished boy sits on the streets of Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. Image credit: rasika108 / 123RF Stock Photo

Now, the latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition Report suggests we could miss the Zero Hunger target by a staggering near-660 million people of whom approximately thirty million may be linked to the aftershocks of the pandemic. These grim portents of doom for hundreds of millions do not preclude the potential for action, but it will require work. India has enacted initiatives to create a more nutritious society and address malnutrition, such as the Eat Right India initiative and working towards enhanced food safety and a trans-fats free country. Other interventions are worthy of consideration. 

The report outlines six “transformation pathways” to address global hunger. These include “[integrating] humanitarian, development and peacebuilding policies in conflict areas – for example, through social protection measures to prevent families from selling meagre assets in exchange for food; [scaling] up climate resilience across food systems – for example, by offering smallholder farmers wide access to climate risk insurance and forecast-based financing; [intervening] along supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods – for example, by encouraging the planting of biofortified crops or making it easier for fruit and vegetable growers to access markets; [tackling] poverty and structural inequalities – for example, by boosting food value chains in poor communities through technology transfers and certification programmes; [and] [strengthening] food environments and changing consumer behaviour – for example, by eliminating industrial trans fats and reducing the salt and sugar content in the food supply, or protecting children from the negative impact of food marketing.” 

A multisectoral approach is crucial if we are to rid the world of global hunger. The pandemic has undeniably set us back, but we already were on the backfoot. By 2030, hundreds of millions face starvation including in economies as advanced as India’s. Applying the learnings of the pandemic and remembering what can be achieved if we collaborate is something vital for tackling global hunger. As the UN states, the report “enjoins policymakers to consult widely; to empower women and youth; and to expand the availability of data and new technologies. Above all, the authors urge, the world must act now – or watch the drivers of hunger and malnutrition recur with growing intensity in coming years, long after the shock of the pandemic has passed.” 

Will India – and the world – take notice? Or will we simply ignore the findings of this report and wait to hear the next round of bad news from the next one?

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report 2021 can be accessed here.

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