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State of Food Security in World: 821 million people hungry, 150 million children stunted
New evidence continues to signal that the number of hungry people in the world is growing, reaching 821 million in 2017 or one in every nine people, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018 released today. Limited progress is also being made in addressing the multiple forms of malnutrition, ranging from child stunting to adult obesity, putting the health of hundreds of millions of people at risk.
Hunger has been on the rise over the past three years, returning to levels from a decade ago. This reversal in progress sends a clear warning that more must be done and urgently if the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger is to be achieved by 2030.
The situation is worsening in South America and most regions of Africa, while the decreasing trend in undernourishment that characterized Asia is slowing down significantly.
“We now have three years of global hunger or chronic deprivation”, Cindy Holleman, Senior Economist at FAO, told UN News in an interview on Tuesday. “The levels of hunger are now where they were, almost a decade ago.”
The report emphasizes that climate variability and extremes are already undermining food production and, if action to mitigate disaster risk reduction and preparedness is not taken, the situation will only get worse as temperatures are expected to continue to rise and become more extreme.
“We must also keep in mind that the underlying factors or causes of hunger are also poverty, and inequalities and marginalization”, Ms. Holleman added, stressing that, as the world works to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing these root causes will be as critical as implementing peace and climate resilience initiatives.
The annual UN report found that climate variability affecting rainfall patterns and agricultural seasons, and climate extremes such as droughts and floods, are among the key drivers behind the rise in hunger, together with conflict and economic slowdowns.
“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 heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the UN Children''s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in their joint foreword to the report.
“If we are to achieve a world without hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030, it is imperative that we accelerate and scale up actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems and people’s livelihoods in response to climate variability and extremes,” the leaders said.
The impact of climate variability and extremes on hunger
Changes in climate are already undermining production of major crops such as wheat, rice and maize in tropical and temperate regions and, without building climate resilience, this is expected to worsen as temperatures increase and become more extreme.
Analysis in the report shows that the prevalence and number of undernourished people is higher in countries highly exposed to climate extremes. Undernourishment is higher again when exposure to climate extremes is compounded by a high proportion of the population depending on agricultural systems that are highly sensitive to rainfall and temperature variability.
Temperature anomalies over agricultural cropping areas continued to be higher than the long-term mean throughout 2011–2016, leading to more frequent spells of extreme heat in the last five years.
The nature of rainfall seasons is also changing, such as the late or early start of rainy seasons and the unequal distribution of rainfall within a season.
The harm to agricultural production contributes to shortfalls in food availability, with knock-on effects causing food price hikes and income losses that reduce people’s access to food.
Slow progress on ending all forms of malnutrition
Poor progress has been made in reducing child stunting, the report highlights, with nearly 151 million children aged under five too short for their age due to malnutrition in 2017. Globally, Africa and Asia accounted for 39 percent and 55 percent of all stunted children, respectively.
The prevalence of child wasting remains extremely high in Asia where almost one in 10 children under five has low weight for their height, compared to just one in 100 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The report describes as “shameful” the fact that one in three women of reproductive age globally is affected by anaemia, which has significant health and development consequences for both women and their children.
No region has shown a decline in anaemia among women of reproductive age, and the prevalence in Africa and Asia is nearly three times higher than in North America.
The other side of hunger: obesity on the rise
Adult obesity is worsening, and more than one in eight adults in the world is obese. The problem is most significant in North America, but Africa and Asia are also experiencing an upward trend, the report shows.
Undernutrition and obesity coexist in many countries, and can even be seen side by side in the same household. Poor access to nutritious food due to its higher cost, the stress of living with food insecurity, and physiological adaptations to food deprivation help explain why food-insecure families may have a higher risk of overweight and obesity.
Call for action
The report calls for implementing and scaling up interventions aimed at guaranteeing access to nutritious foods and breaking the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition. Policies must pay special attention to groups who are the most vulnerable to the harmful consequences of poor food access: infants, children aged under five, school-aged children, adolescent girls, and women.
At the same time, a sustainable shift must be made towards nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems that can provide safe and high-quality food for all.
The report also calls for greater efforts to build climate resilience through policies that promote climate change adaptation and mitigation, and disaster risk reduction.
A few key facts and figures:
Number of hungry people in the world in 2017: 821 million or 1 in every 9 people - in Asia 515 million; in Africa: 256.5 million; in Latin America and the Caribbean 39 million
Children under 5 affected by stunting (low height-for-age): 150.8 million (22.2%). Children under 5 affected by wasting (low weight-for-height): 50.5 million (7.5%)
Percentage of women of reproductive age affected by anaemia: 32.8%
The report is part of tracking progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 2 - Zero Hunger, which aims to end hunger, promote food security and end all forms of malnutrition by 2030. The report also tracks progress on six of the seven World Health Assembly global nutrition targets.
Last year’s report observed that three factors are behind the recent rise in hunger: conflict, climate and economic slowdowns, and provided an in-depth study of the role of conflict. This year’s report focuses on the role of climate variability and extremes to explain the observed trends in food security.

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The Return of Famine
by Alex de Waal, World Peace Foundation
Tufts University - Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
Famine is an age-old scourge that almost disappeared in our lifetime. On the basis of our relevant scholarly and professional expertise, we, members of the faculty, staff and students of Tufts University, make the following declaration about the grave public ill that is famine, and our responsibility, as a university, a nation, and members of the international community, to end famine once and for all.
Between 2000 and 2011 there were no famines. Deaths in humanitarian emergencies have been much reduced. This progress is partly due to greater expertise in predicting, preventing, mitigating and responding to crises before they reach famine. International humanitarian law is stronger. Humanitarian lesson-learning is more robust. Over a generation, the humanitarian agenda was ascendant.
Yet famines have returned. In 2017, the United Nations identified four situations of acute food insecurity that threatened famine or breached that threshold—in north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Today Yemen is the most severe crisis. Several additional countries may also be at risk this year and next.
The return of famine has revived myths that must be debunked. Famine is not the product of drought or overpopulation; it is not particular to Africa; it is not just a severe version of hunger. Famines are multi-causal; they occur when different kinds of adversity combine to create a vortex of calamity: agro-climatic, economic, conflict- and governance-related, and increasingly, failures of states and international actors to intervene in a timely manner. Even while global indicators for poverty, hunger, nutrition and health are improving, for some populations matters are worsening.
Above all, political choices have driven famine’s re-emergence in this century. Some famines derive from intentional political and military decisions, while others are allowed to develop because the most powerful actors have other priorities, such as security, that overrule an effective response.
Every famine today is occurring in the context of armed conflict. Indeed, all result from military actions and exclusionary, authoritarian politics conducted without regard to the wellbeing or even the survival of people. Violations of international humanitarian law including blockading ports, attacks on health facilities, violence against humanitarian workers, and obstruction of relief aid are all carried out with a sense of renewed impunity. Famines strike when accountability fails.
Addressing this demands a new infusion of resources and energy, to ensure that there is sufficient political will to end the political and military practices that cause famine.
At a time when more authoritarian, militaristic, xenophobic and cynically self-interested politics are on the rise, we must defend the humanitarian imperative and the right of life and dignity.
Our ultimate goal is to render mass starvation so morally toxic, that it is universally publicly vilified. Because mass starvation demonstratively can be ended, it cannot be tolerated. We aim to make mass starvation unthinkable, such that leaders in a position to inflict it or fail to prevent it will unhesitatingly ensure that it does not occur, and the public will demand this of them.
* A conference On the Return of Famine held at Tufts University in May brought together faculty and researchers from across the University, in conversation with outside experts. Panels addressed why famine has returned, today’s humanitarian challenges, legal and political issues related to criminalizing famine, and the most pressing famine of today, Yemen.
* Watch videos of panelists’ presentations at the May conference:

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