World hunger grows for third consecutive year

selimaksan/iStock/Getty Images global map representing world hunger or food security on wood table with knife and fork
Hunger increasing in many countries where economic growth is lagging.

An estimated 820 million people were food insecure in 2018, up from 811 million in 2017 and the third consecutive year of increase, according to the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). The increase underscores the immense challenge of achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030, the newly released annual "The State of Food Security & Nutrition in the World" report stated.

The pace of progress in halving the number of children who are stunted and reducing the number of babies born with low birth weight is too slow, which also puts the nutrition targets further out of reach, the report noted.

Meanwhile, the number of people who are overweight and obese continues to increase in all regions, particularly among school-age children and adults.

Further, the report relayed that the chances of being food insecure are higher for women than men on every continent, with the largest gap in Latin America.

In their joint foreword to the report, the heads of FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the U.N. Children's Fund, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization urged, "Our actions to tackle these troubling trends will have to be bolder not only in scale but also in terms of multisectoral collaboration."

Hunger is increasing in many countries where economic growth is lagging, particularly in middle-income countries and those that rely heavily on international trade of primary commodities. The annual U.N. report also found that income inequality is rising in many of the countries where hunger is on the rise, making it even more difficult for the poor, vulnerable or marginalized to cope with economic slowdowns and downturns.

"We must foster pro-poor and inclusive structural transformation focusing on people and placing communities at the center to reduce economic vulnerabilities and set ourselves on track to ending hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition," the U.N. leaders said.

Slow progress in Africa and Asia

The situation is most alarming in Africa, because the region has the highest rates of hunger in the world, and these rates continue to rise slowly but steadily in almost all subregions. In eastern Africa, in particular, close to a third of the population (30.8%) is undernourished.

In addition to the climate and conflicts, economic slowdowns and downturns are driving the rise, the report said. Since 2011, almost half of the countries where rising hunger occurred due to economic slowdowns or stagnation were in Africa.

The largest number of undernourished people (more than 500 million) live in Asia, mostly in southern Asian countries. Together, Africa and Asia bear the greatest share of all forms of malnutrition, accounting for more than nine out of 10 of all stunted children and all wasted children worldwide. In southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, one child in three is stunted.

In addition to the challenges of stunting and wasting, Asia and Africa are also home to nearly three-quarters of all overweight children worldwide, largely driven by unhealthy diets.

Going beyond hunger

This year's report introduced a new indicator for measuring food insecurity at different levels of severity and for monitoring progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 2: the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity. This indicator is based on data obtained directly from people surveyed about their access to food in the last 12 months using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale. People experiencing moderate food insecurity face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and have had to reduce the quality and/or quantity of food they eat to get by.

The report estimates that more than 2 billion people, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. In addition, irregular access is also a challenge for high-income countries, including 8% of the population in North America and Europe.

“This calls for a profound transformation of food systems to provide sustainably produced healthy diets for a growing world population,” the leaders said.

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