Number of people facing hunger soared during the pandemic, UN report finds

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AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli

The UN annual report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021, published on 12 July, has revealed the staggering number of people facing hunger during the Covid pandemic in 2020. The report estimates that 811m people worldwide were undernourished, up 161M from the previous year, and 2.37 billion people didn’t have access to adequate food during the coronavirus crisis, a 320 million increase compared to 2019.

Six years ago countries around the world took a pledge to end world hunger by 2030, but as years went by, it became clear the timeline was unrealistic.
The annual report, co-authored by FAO Director General Qu Dongyu, IFAD President Gilbert F. Houngbo, Unicef Executive Director Henrietta G. Fore, WFP Executive Director David Beasley and WHO Director General Edros Adhanom Gedreyesus, states that in the past four years it has become clear that the world is far from solving its food inequality issues and had made little progress in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 2.1, of making sure that people had access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round, or towards SDG Target 2.2, which aims to eradicate all forms of malnutrition globally.

With the world’s economy experiencing a devastating financial impact and recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global food security and nutrition have deteriorated during 2020.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, particularly the most vulnerable and those living in fragile contexts.”, says the report.

The crisis has affected every continent, and whilst the full data for 2020 is yet to be available, the study estimates that the worst affected regions are Asia, where 418M people are deemed undernourished, followed by Africa, with 282M – more than a third of its population – and 60M in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Malnutrition has had a huge impact on the health of children under five. 149.2 million suffered from stunting, 45.4 million from wasting, and 38.9 million were overweight.

There are several factors alongside the COVID-19 pandemic that have contributed to a spike in world hunger. Wealth inequality, the high cost of healthy foods, recession, climate-related disasters and conflict and violence in regions of the world have all played a role in the increase in the global food crisis. These factors have also contributed to an increase in worldwide obesity.
“Given the past and present interactions of these drivers with economic slowdowns and downturns, as well as high and persistent (and in some countries growing) levels of inequality”, the UN report states, “it is not surprising that governments could not keep the worst-case scenario for food security and nutrition from materializing and affecting millions of people all over the world.”.

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 outlines six key areas where changes are needed to tackle the global food crisis:

  1. Integrating humanitarian, development and peacebuilding policies in conflict-affected areas
    It is important to recall that the majority of the chronically food insecure and many of the malnourished live in countries affected by insecurity and conflict. Therefore, it is imperative that conflict-sensitive policies, investments and actions to reduce immediate food insecurity and malnutrition be implemented simultaneously with those aimed at a reduction in the levels of conflict, and aligned with long-term socio-economic development and peacebuilding efforts.
  2. Scaling up climate resilience across food systems
    The ways we produce food and use our natural resources can help deliver a climate-positive future in which people and nature can coexist and thrive. This is important, not only because food systems are affected by environmental degradation and climate events, but also because food systems themselves impact on the state of the environment and are a major driver of climate change. Central to this effort are priorities to protect nature, to sustainably manage existing food production and supply systems, and to restore and rehabilitate natural environments. Solutions require increased partnerships and multi-year, large-scale funding in support of (among others): integrated disaster risk reduction and management programmes; climate change adaptation policies; and practices that are short, medium and long-term in scope to mitigate the impact of climate variability and extremes, including on persistent poverty and inequality. Adopting climate-sensitive approaches in food and agricultural investments can reduce food security risks associated with climate extremes, build long-term resilience and strengthen coping mechanisms along food supply chains.
  3. Strengthening resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity.
    In 2020, as world GDP contracted by an estimated 3.3% during the COVID-19 pandemic, counteractive measures, including stepped-up social assistance, employment and social insurance programmes, and large-scale emergency measures to protect economies worldwide, demonstrated the importance of building resilience in the face of economic adversity. Critically, the need for economic and social policies, institutions, legislation and other measures to be in place well in advance of economic slowdowns and downturns became evident, as these measures are designed to counteract the effects of adverse economic cycles when they do arrive, especially for the most vulnerable population groups, and to maintain access to nutritious foods and healthy diets. In the immediate term, such policies, laws and investments must include social protection mechanisms and primary healthcare services, while supporting household income and livelihoods through social assistance or active labour market policies.
  4. Intervening along food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods
    Interventions along food supply chains are needed to increase the availability of safe and nutritious foods and lower their cost, primarily as a means to increase the affordability of healthy diets. This pathway calls for a coherent set of policies and investments from production to consumption aimed at realizing efficiency gains and cutting food losses and waste to help achieve these objectives. Incentives should, among others, stimulate diversification of production in the food and agriculture sectors towards nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and seeds, as well as animal source foods and biofortified crops, in addition to investments in innovation, research and extension to raise productivity. Elsewhere in the supply chain, the nutritional quality of food products and beverages can be improved by post-harvest fortification of staple foods in line with international guidelines.
  5. Tackling poverty and structural inequalities, ensuring interventions are pro-poor and inclusive
    Persistent and high levels of inequality seriously limit people’s chances to overcome hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms. Policies, investments and laws that address underlying structural inequalities faced by vulnerable population groups in both rural and urban areas are needed, while also increasing their access to productive resources and new technologies. About 80% of the extreme poor live in rural areas, where poverty rates are three times higher than in urban areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated this situation, exacerbating inequalities and negatively impacting on the lives and well-being of the rural poor, in particular. If implemented successfully, this fifth pathway can reduce extreme poverty and structural inequalities through accelerated food systems transformation that is both pro-poor and inclusive.
  1. Tackling poverty and structural inequalities, ensuring interventions are pro-poor and inclusive
    Persistent and high levels of inequality seriously limit people’s chances to overcome hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms. Policies, investments and laws that address underlying structural inequalities faced by vulnerable population groups in both rural and urban areas are needed, while also increasing their access to productive resources and new technologies. About 80 percent of the extreme poor live in rural areas, where poverty rates are three times higher than in urban areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated this situation, exacerbating inequalities and negatively impacting on the lives and well-being of the rural poor, in particular. If implemented successfully, this fifth pathway can reduce extreme poverty and structural inequalities through accelerated food systems transformation that is both pro-poor and inclusive.
  2. Strengthening food environments and changing consumer behaviour to promote dietary patterns with positive impacts on human health and the environment
    Access to nutritious foods and healthy diets is not only a matter of cost and affordability. Many elements of the food environment determine dietary patterns, while culture, language, culinary practices, knowledge and consumption patterns, food preferences, beliefs and values all relate to the way food is sourced, generated, produced and consumed. Dietary patterns have been changing and have had both positive and negative impacts on human health and the environment. Hidden costs to human health and to the environment that characterize most food systems today are ignored. Given that they are mostly not measured either, they also go unaddressed and are unaccounted for in food prices, ultimately jeopardizing the sustainability of food systems. Therefore, based on the specific country context and prevailing consumption patterns, there is a need for policies, laws and investments to create healthier food environments and to empower consumers to pursue dietary patterns that are nutritious, healthy and safe and with a lower impact on the environment.

Discussions on how to tackle the global food system will take place at the UN Food Systems Summit 2021, later this year, and at the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit, which takes place in Rome 26-28 July.

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