The urgency of hunger

A few days ago, I attended the launch of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 (SOFI) report in New York. The report does not make for pleasant reading.

More than 820 million people in our world suffer from daily hunger and this number has been slowly increasing in the past three years. And almost two billion people face some form of food insecurity i.e. without access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. Even though Asia, in particular South Asia, predominates, more than 20 percent of the world’s population suffering from undernutrition lives in Africa. Almost 20.5 million babies (one in seven newborns) suffer from low birthweight.

Indeed, no progress has been made in reducing low birthweight since 2012. And while the number of children affected by stunting (height-for-age) has decreased by 10 percent in the past few years, 149 million children continue to be stunted. Similarly, anaemia continues to rise. Women, children and indigenous groups remain particularly vulnerable to hunger.

For the first time in its history, the Sofi report offers a glimpse of the problems of overweight and obesity, which continue to rise fast in all regions and is assuming epidemic proportions. Over two billion adults were estimated to be overweight in 2016 in addition to 131 million children aged five to nine.

In Africa, obesity is rising at 6.2 percent per year, while the corresponding figure for Asia is 7.5 percent.

As in previous years, the Sofi report documents the role of conflicts and climate variability on rising hunger, but this year the focus is also on how the “uneven pace of economic recovery in many countries after the 2008-2009 global economic downturn are also undermining efforts to end hunger and malnutrition”.

Various types of inequalities—including those of income, gender, access to productive agricultural land, access to healthy and fresh food —are highly correlated with food insecurity.

Much of the discussion during the Sofi launch in New York focused on how our food systems have been broken and the fact that the societal costs of hunger are staggering. We must radically transform our local, national and international food systems into more sustainable, nutritious and efficient systems.

For this to happen, we need good policies that support small-scale farmers and promote agri-food value chains that rewards these farmers for their role in food production. A majority of those that are food insecure are rural inhabitants, and ironically, many are farmers themselves. In addition to boosting their incomes, we must better integrate them in the markets.

The enormous scale of world hunger requires us to update our approaches and ensure that our interventions are better targeted both socially and geographically, taking into account inequality, conflict, gender, climate and economic slowdowns.

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