World hunger and malnutrition levels worsened dramatically last year, with most of the increase likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a multi-agency United Nations (UN) report published on Monday.
After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, the number of undernourished people rose to around 768 million last year - equivalent to 10 per cent of the world's population and an increase of around 118 million versus 2019, the report said.
Authored by UN agencies including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), the report is the first comprehensive assessment of food insecurity and nutrition since the pandemic emerged.
"Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten lives and livelihoods. No region of the world has been spared," the UN agencies said in a joint statement.
The 2021 edition of "The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World" estimated that on current trends, the UN sustainable development goal of zero hunger by 2030 will be missed by a margin of nearly 660 million people.
That number is 30 million higher than in a scenario where the pandemic had not occurred.
"Our worst fears are coming true. Reversing such high levels of chronic hunger will take years if not decades," said WFP chief economist Arif Husain.
There is increased diplomatic momentum this year to tackle hunger and malnutrition with upcoming summits like the UN Food Systems Summit and the Nutrition for Growth Summit.
But the report stressed the challenge was huge.
The number of people unable to access adequate food year-round rose by 320 million to 2.37 billion last year – a rise in one year equal to the preceding five years combined.
Of the 768 million undernourished people, 418 million were in Asia, 282 million in Africa and 60 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Africa though, 21 per cent of people are undernourished, more than double that of any other region.
After declining for several decades, food insecurity has been on the rise since the mid-2010s, especially in countries affected by conflict, climate extremes, economic downturns, or battling high inequality.
The increase last year however was equal to that of the previous five years combined.