World Hunger Is on the Rise for the Third Year in a Row

A new report warns that war and increased natural disasters from climate change are beginning to reverse gains made in recent decades

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The new report finds that one in nine people are undernourished globally. Wikimedia Commons

For decades, improvements in agricultural practices and food distribution steadily decreased hunger rates in nations across the globe. But Jason Beaubien at NPR reports that progress has been bumped off the tracks. New data, put together by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (F.A.O.) and other agencies, finds that for the third year in a row, hunger has increased across the world.

The recent report is somewhat surprising. As of 2015, the rate of undernourishment in the developing world had decreased from 23.3 percent of people between the years 1990 to 1992 to 12.9 percent. But just as that percentage dropped by almost half, the numbers began to reflect global hunger on the rise. From 783.7 million people affected by hunger in 2014, that number increased to 784.4 in 2015, and 804.2 in 2016; the latest report bumps the number of those affected to 820.8 million.

So what’s causing the increase in hunger? The report points to two main culprits: conflicts around the globe and extreme weather events likely powered by climate change. The interminable conflicts in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia have led to food issues for millions of people. The drop in crude oil prices has led to economic problems in South America and in Venezuela in particular where more than 2.3 million people have fled the country mainly due to food issues.

In Africa, some of the worst droughts ever seen have occurred in the last decade affecting nations all over the continent including parts of West Africa, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, decimating agriculture and impacting food availability in the region.

“[T]he underlying problem with hunger and why we see so much hunger is also poverty, income inequalities and the marginalization of populations,” report editor Cindy Holleman, senior economist for food security and nutrition at the F.A.O., tells Zipporah Nyambura at Deutsche Welle. “But what's new is we’re seeing increasing climate variability and Africa has been hard hit in the last 10 years especially with climate variability and extremes.”

The impacts of hunger can be severe. According to the report, 151 million children under the age of 5 experience stunted growth due to malnourishment, and 50.5 million experience wasting, or being severely underweight. Paradoxically, hunger also leads to increased rates of obesity, which leads to other health problems like diabetes. According to an F.A.O. press release, in 2016, the global percentage of obese people had reached 13.2 percent, even in nations where hunger was on the rise. The reasons for this are complex—because fresh food is often expensive, people gravitate toward fat and sugar-filled processed foods. A “feast-or-famine” style of eating, in which people gorge when food is available and go hungry when it is not is also believed to lead to metabolic changes that could cause unwanted weight gain.

The reversal in hunger rates isn’t just a temporary blip and experts don’t see the trend reversing on its own and, in fact, fear that it will get worse without intervention. The report suggests that efforts to end global conflicts, stop climate change and make nations more resilient against natural disasters like flood and drought are needed to get things back on track.

If the trend continues, the UN will fail to achieve one of its most important sustainable development goals, an agenda of projects like ending poverty and improving health and education by 2030 that was ratified in 2015. “The alarming signs of increasing food insecurity and high levels of different forms of malnutrition are a clear warning that there is considerable work to be done to make sure we 'leave no one behind' on the road towards achieving the SDG goals on food security and improved nutrition,” the study’s authors write.

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