The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World
Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, 2019
The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2019: Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns is the latest publication in a series of annual reports released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and other partner organizations. This edition of SOFI maintains a general purpose of monitoring progress towards targets 2.1 and 2.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals, or ending global hunger and malnutrition, respectively. Since 2017, SOFI reports have also analyzed some of the factors and drivers underlying issues in food security and nutrition. SOFI 2019 is the first report in its series to include the ‘prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity’ as an indicator of world hunger, in addition to the previously utilized metric of the global ‘prevalence of undernourishment’. Further, as suggested in its official title, SOFI 2019 examines the relationship between hunger and negative economic conditions.
A key message of this report relates to the overall trend of global hunger, as described by the prevalence of undernourishment (the ‘traditional’ definition). In the decades prior to 2015 there was a steady decline in global hunger, yet for the last three years (including 2018, the focus of this report), the prevalence of undernourishment has slowly started to increase. It’s estimated that over 820 million people now suffer from hunger. SOFI 2019 also considers food security, or access to sufficient and nutritious food, as an indicator of hunger. An alarming 2 billion people (over a quarter of the world’s population) have experienced moderate or severe food insecurity and are therefore at a greater risk of exhibiting malnutrition and poor health.
Turning now to specific territories, this report observes that levels of hunger are increasing across the majority of subregions in Africa, and undernourishment poses a particularly grave problem for communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Latin America has also demonstrated an increasing prevalence of hunger, although to a lesser degree than sub-Saharan Africa. From a population perspective, Asia contains the highest number of undernourished individuals (at 500 million), with Southern Asia demonstrating the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the continent. Food insecurity is also an issue among higher-income countries, revealed by the observation that 8% of all North American and Europeans are considered to be food insecure. For a variety of reasons (including the prohibitive cost of many nutritious foods), living in food-insecure households in upper-middle- and high-income countries is actually a predictor of obesity among most age groups. Regarding gender, women consistently demonstrate higher levels of food insecurity than men in all continents. This observed gender gap is particularly high in Latin America.
Amidst rising levels of global hunger, SOFI 2019 indicates that obesity remains a serious and growing concern. The prevalence of obesity is increasing across all age ranges (particularly among school-age children and adults) and in almost every country. Obesity is related to poor diets (often marked by not enough fruits and vegetables and too much fast food and sweetened beverages), coupled with insufficient physical activity. Initiatives at the policy level, including changes that facilitate more nutritious diets and support healthy breastfeeding practices, can help combat this obesity epidemic.
Childhood stunting (insufficient growth/development due to poor nutrition and other factors) is another focus of SOFI 2019 and has decreased by 10% over the last six years. However, the current figure of 149 million stunted children does not align with a previous goal to decrease childhood stunting by 50% by the year 2030. This phenomenon is also unevenly distributed from a geographic perspective, as Africa and Asia account for over 90% of cases of childhood stunting. SOFI 2019 outlines several other nutritional issues affecting children and their mothers on which progress has been too slow and/or ineffective, including wasted (severely underweight) children, anemia (deficient red blood cell count) among women of reproductive age, low birthweight, and infants not being exclusively breastfed. Malnutrition experienced in childhood can have far reaching implications over an individual’s lifetime (and even between generations), further underlying the importance of rapid and multisectoral policies to improve nutritional outcomes for children.
Moving on to economic concerns, SOFI 2019 first discusses costs associated with undernutrition and obesity: The former will decrease Gross Domestic Product (GDP) among African and Asian nations, and the latter is extremely costly to global productivity and healthcare systems (to the tune of $2 trillion annually). However, this report is more focused on the ways in which the economy can affect nutritional outcomes. At a broad level, undernourishment has indeed increased in most countries that have experienced economic slowdowns or contractions (downturns). Moreover, economic shocks (due to unexpected events) can worsen both the severity and duration of acute food insecurity, especially when combined with conflict or climate change-related events. In the context of these economic shocks, individuals who are already facing inequalities (in wealth or through some form of marginalization or social exclusion) will experience disproportionately higher levels of food insecurity. In other words, those who are already vulnerable will experience increasingly dire conditions.
In looking to solve these large and complex issues, SOFI 2019 recommends actions that help mitigate the potential effects of negative economic conditions and also address existing inequalities. For example, funding social safety nets and universal healthcare and education can help decrease the severity of future recessions, and multisectoral policies that target inequalities can reduce instances of food insecurity. This report further stresses the importance of short term actions by governments to protect incomes and purchasing power (the value of a currency), alongside long term commitments to invest wisely during ‘booming’ economic conditions to reduce inequalities and improve the capacity of current (food) systems. Structural transformations that prioritize food security and nutrition are evidently necessary.
SOFI 2019, despite the presence of some positive trends, offers a stark reminder that we have a long way to go in order to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030, or Goal #2 of the SDG’s. This report offers value to policymakers by demonstrating the importance of multisectoral policies that connect hunger to other SDGs, including eradicating poverty, ensuring inclusive economies, and addressing inequalities. These targets, and many others, are deeply related to the current and future impacts of climate change. Furthermore, it’s crucial to understand how Indigenous populations around the world have been systematically disadvantaged and face disproportionately higher rates of undernutrition and food insecurity.
This resource from the University of Toronto links to several articles on food security and Indigenous people in a Canadian context.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) has also assembled a collection of informational reports on Inuit food insecurity and Canadian Inuit hunger which can be accessed here.
Find the full UN report here.
1.FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019. Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns, 2019. Rome, FAO. Available from http://www.fao.org/3/ca5162en/ca5162en.pdf