Pandemic could increase world hunger by one fifth — UN report

The coronavirus pandemic will accelerate the five-year-old rise in world hunger and could add as many as 132 million people this year to the global tally of the hungry, an increase of 19 percent, said five UN agencies in a report on Monday. The pandemic is disrupting the food supply chain while sweeping lockdowns to control the virus are cutting off people from work, said the annual State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

“This will make it difficult to afford food, particularly for the poor and vulnerable groups. Low- and middle-income countries will likely be the most affected, as they do not have the contingency mechanisms and funds to stimulate their economies and protect the most vulnerable,” said the report. “As a consequence, a pandemic-induced global economic crisis is likely to generate new pockets of food insecurity even in countries that did not require interventions previously.”

Almost 690 million people, or 8.9 percent of the world population, went hungry in 2019, an increase of 60 million people from 2014, when the hunger rate was 8.6 percent. The increase, after decades of progress on nutrition, puts in doubt the UN goal of eliminating hunger by 2030. If recent trends are not reversed, 841 million people, or 9.8 percent of the world population, will be undernourished in 2030, said the UN report.

“As progress in fighting hunger stalls the Covid-19 pandemic is intensifying the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of global food systems, understood as all the activities and processes affecting the production, distribution and consumption of food,” said a UN statement.

At a minimum, an additional 83 million people may go hungry this year, a 12 percent increase, but the figure could be as high as 132 million, a 19 percent increase, according to three scenarios presented in the report. The middle range scenario was an increase of 103 million people, a rise of 15 percent. The scenarios were based on possible declines in the world economy this year and paths for recovery in 2021, in what would be a U-shaped recovery. While this would bring down the number of undernourished people, their numbers would be higher than before the pandemic.

“Such a recovery is conditional on second waves of infections not materializing or being easily contained,” said the report.

The number of hungry people this year would range from 778 million to 827 million under the three scenarios. In 2030, the total could vary from a low of 860 million to a high of 909 million. The world population was projected at 8.5 billion in 2030, according to a UN report last year. In that case, hunger rates would exceed 10 percent, last seen in 2009 during the last recession.

In looking at hunger data for 2019, the so-called SOFI report said Asia was home to the largest number of undernourished people,  at 381 million. Africa was second with 250 million, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with 48 million. Africa has the highest rate of undernourishment, 19.1 percent, and at current rates, “Africa will be home to half of the world’s chronically” undernournished in 2030, said the report.

“High costs and low affordability also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously,” said the report. It estimated a healthy diet costs much more than the international poverty threshold of $1.90 a day. Three billion people will not be able to afford a healthy diet. “No region, including North America and Europe, is spared” from these calculations, the report said.

The UN estimate of the number of hungry people in the world was lower than in previous reports due to updated information from China and 12 other nations. “Despite this shift in levels, the revision confirms the trend reported in past editions of this report: The number of people affected by hunger in the world has been slowly on the rise since 2014,” said the SOFI.