Is 'Zero Hunger' a utopian dream?

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Published: August 14, 2019 21:06:42

According to 'The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019' report released by five UN organisations recently, the number of people suffering from hunger globally has increased over the past three years, with about one in nine people going hungry every day. Co-authored by FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, and subtitled 'Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns', the report claimed that over 820 million people worldwide suffered from hunger today, which underscored the immense global challenge in achieving 'zero hunger' target of the 'Sustainable Development Goals' by the year 2030. This report previously monitored global hunger by using the indicator 'prevalence of undernourishment' (PoU) in order to track progress towards SDG Target 2.1. The scope of the report has been expanded this year by incorporating another indicator: prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity.

The background for this huge challenge of eliminating hunger includes stagnant growth in the world economy; greater population displacement due to conflicts around the world; agricultural productivity and food production hampered by climatic variability and extremes leading to impacts on food systems and livelihoods; and a decline in the number of farmers. All these have resulted in a major shift in ways food is produced, distributed and consumed globally, which poses new challenges for food security, nutrition and health.

The UN report has found that after decades of consistent fall, the trend of global hunger - measured by the prevalence of undernourishment - has remained virtually unchanged since 2015, at slightly below 11 per cent level. Side by side, the number of people suffering from hunger has gradually increased, touching the figure of over 820 million people in 2108. It is on the rise in most sub-regions of Africa, making it the region afflicted with the highest prevalence of under-nourishment (around 20 per cent). Hunger is also rising continuously in South and Central America (below 7 per cent) and Western Asia (over 12 per cent). On the other hand, the prevalence of undernourishment in South Asia (15 per cent) is still the highest in Asia.    

A broader look by the report on the extent of food insecurity revealed that around 1.3 billion people or 17.2 per cent of the global population have experienced moderate levels of food insecurity. That implies: they do not have regular access to sufficient nutritious food. Although they may not be hungry, they are at greater risk of malnutrition and poor health. It has been estimated that around 2 billion people or 26.4 per cent of the global population suffer from a combination of moderate and severe levels of food insecurity. It has also been found that food insecurity is slightly higher among women compared to men, with the largest gaps found in Latin America.

The UN report finds rising obesity in most countries leading to 4 million deaths globally. The rise in obesity was even faster than that of overweight during the period 2000-16, and no region is exempt from this epidemic. The increase has been observed among all age groups, but it has been particularly steep among school-age children. These children usually do not eat enough vegetables or fruits and are not physically active. Therefore, policies need to be adopted to promote breastfeeding, support the availability and affordability of nutritious foods and limit the consumption of harmful fats, salts and sugars.

The report notes that the number of stunted children has declined over the past six years by 10 per cent, which is not enough for achieving the SDG target of 50 per cent reduction by 2030. Africa and Asia accounted for 94.4 per cent of stunted children globally, their share being 39.5 and 54.9 per cent respectively. Also, low birth-weight estimates revealed for the first time that 20.5 million babies suffered from the malady in 2015. Evidences indicate that no progress has been made in reducing the prevalence of low birth-weight since 2012.

Alongside the immense human costs of malnutrition, the report finds its economic costs to be staggering. It estimates that under-nutrition reduces GDP by up to 11 per cent in Africa and Asia, while obesity costs USD 2 trillion globally per year mainly due to lost economic productivity and direct healthcare expenses. Moderate levels of food insecurity increases the risks associated with malnutrition. Besides, food-insecure households in upper-middle and high-income countries are prone to breed obesity among school-age children, adolescents and adults. It is explained by higher costs of nutritious food, stressful living due to uncertain access to food, and physiological adaptations to food restrictions.      

The UN report asserts that most countries (65 out of 77) that witnessed an increase in undernourishment during 2011-17 also went through economic downturn. The majority of these countries belonged to the middle-income category. The impact of conflicts and climatic events on acute food security has also been worsened by economic shocks. The severity of food insecurity affecting 96 million people has been exacerbated by multiple economic shocks in half the countries undergoing food crisis in 2018. Food security and nutrition are affected by economic events depending not only on extreme poverty level, but also on inequalities in income distribution and access to basic services and assets. Economic downturns have a disproportionate impact on food security and nutrition in lower-income populations where inequality is greater. Inequality raises the likelihood of severe food insecurity, which is 20 per cent higher for low-income countries compared to the middle-income ones.

The UN report urges actions on two fronts for tackling hunger on a global scale. Firstly, social and economic policies should be adopted for promoting food security and nutrition in order to counteract the impacts of economic downturns, which includes providing social safety nets as well as universal access to health and education. Secondly, the existing inequalities at all levels should be addressed through multi-sector policies that enable more sustainable escape from food insecurity and malnutrition. For countries with economies highly dependent on primary commodities, fostering inclusive structural transformation for reducing poverty and economic vulnerabilities is an imperative that can be achieved through appropriate policies and investments.

Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.  hahmed1960@gmail.com

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