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A Major UN Report Shows That Progress on Reducing Global Hunger Has Been Reversed

Global hunger is on the rise for the third year in a row and reached an “alarming” ten-year high in 2017, according to the UN’s annual State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report published yesterday.

One in nine people – nearly 821 million – suffered from chronic food deprivation in 2017,  compared to about 804 million people in 2016. The report says that these are the same levels from almost a decade ago. That means the massive strides the global community made over the last 10 to 15 years to reduce hunger are rapidly being reversed as we move away from the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030.

According to the report, the main drivers of this increase is persistent conflict, adverse climate events and economic slowdowns.

In another report published on Monday, Save the Children estimated that 590,000 severely malnourished children in conflict zones who are under the age of five are expected to die from lack of treatment before the end of the year. To put that into perspective, the charity noted, that’s an average of 1,600 children under five dying from hunger every day, or one child every minute.

But that’s only a fraction of the 4.5 million children under five in the most dangerous conflict zones who will need treatment for life-threatening malnutrition this year. According to the report, that figure is nearly 20 percent higher than in 2016.

The good news is that there have been improvements in global rates of stunting and exclusive breastfeeding, but millions of children are still affected by stunting, wasting (low weight for height, which increases risk of death) and even overweight. Although the global rate of overweight children has only increased slightly since 2012 (from 5.4 percent to 5.6 percent in 2017), adult obesity continues to climb, affecting more than 672 million people in 2017, or one in eight adults. The rate of anemia among women of reproductive age has also risen, affecting one in three women – consequently also affecting the health and development of their children.

The UN report says that Africa remains the continent with the highest prevalence of undernourishment at almost 21 percent, or more than 256 million people, while improvements in Asia appear to be slowing down “significantly.” But it’s also getting worse in South America, where the UN says that low prices in main exports, like crude oil, have persisted, straining resources for food imports and social safety nets for the most vulnerable amid rapid inflation.

Venezuela is the most notable example. When oil prices nosedived in 2014, imports – including food – suddenly became scarce and expensive. The government kept printing money to maintain popularity with the poor, but all that did was rapidly hike inflation. Soon, millions of starving Venezuelans found themselves scrounging on the streets for anything edible. According to the UN, 3.7 million Venezuelans were undernourished in the 2015 to 2017 period, and more than 2.3 million have fled the country since 2014.

But more than conflict or economic woes, the report focuses on the effects of climate change as a leading cause of severe food crises. According to the report, “the number of extreme climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s.” These events (especially drought) have harmed agricultural output, raised food prices and stripped governments and people – particularly smallholder farming communities – of financial resources. As temperatures continue to rise, the effects will worsen.

The report, therefore, calls for more resilience-building interventions, such as early warning systems, emergency preparedness and response, forecast-based financing and vulnerability reduction measures. But the authors also include a reminder that climate resilience policies and programs are not enough.

“We must also keep in mind that the underlying factors or causes of hunger are also poverty and inequalities and marginalization,” Cindy Holleman, a senior economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), told UN News.

Achieving zero hunger by 2030 is becoming more difficult, but it’s only possible with progress toward the other sustainable development goals as well.