With World War II still raging, in 1943, governments from over 40 countries convened to fight another cross-border threat: hunger. Within two years, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) was set up on the Latin promise fiat panis – let there be bread.
The push to eradicate chronic hunger and food insecurity was one of the collective achievements of the 20th century. Fifty years after the seeds of the FAO were sown, the global share of undernourished individuals stood at less than one in five while the world population more than doubled. Towards the end of the 2010s, that share nearly halved to 10.8 per cent.
Although the successes over the decades are indeed remarkable, thanks to advances in research, technologies, distribution, and rising living standards, the World Hunger Index (GHI) estimates that 820 million people still suffer undernourishment.
More worrying still, is the disparity between developed nations and the rest of the international community. Almost two-thirds of hunger emergency hotspots are located in the Asia Pacific region while the remaining zones are mainly concentrated in Sub Saharan Africa.
Today, no country has a majority of people experiencing hunger, but the severity of malnutrition is “alarmingly high” in Chad, Timor-Leste, and Madagascar with more than one person in three affected. The GHI considers the situation in 31 countries “serious”, as undernourishment affects between a fifth to a third of the national population.
Another 26 countries have a “moderate” challenge in malnutrition, with more than a tenth of people battling hunger. The global commitment is to achieve Zero Hunger, but as evidenced by the 47 nations that register a share of malnutrition under 10 per cent, the fight is nowhere close to its end.
Trends, however, have been largely encouraging. Virtually all countries reported a steady decline in undernourishment since 2000. Angola started the millennium with a 65 per cent rate of hunger but has sharply cut it back to 27 per cent by 2020. Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan made the same progress from an extremely alarming situation to a serious one over the same period.
Gambia and Nepal ranked in the alarming category in 2020 but have both successfully scaled down to moderate levels. Meanwhile, another six countries went from moderate to little hunger.
Venezuela is the only country to buck the trend. Less than 15 per cent of Venezuelans suffered malnutrition at the turn of the century, and that share was reduced to 8 per cent by 2012. In the last eight years, however, hunger cases have exploded and nearly a quarter of the population is now undernourished. The socioeconomic crisis that has gripped the country led to hyperinflation, forcing millions of people at risk of starvation.
Events, political or otherwise, often stand in the way of the drive to stamp out hunger. The World Food Programme, in fact, estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic has doubled cases of malnutrition especially in countries already burdened by armed conflict.
The effects of the coronavirus will take years to counteract, and the World Bank already predicts that goals towards 2030 may have been dented, even without considering potential pressures on food supply in the future.
The accomplishments in the last 80 years should give hope that the war on hunger is not unwinnable, but every life lost to famine is a battle lost.
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