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Almost 10% of all people went hungry in 2020

World hunger "shot up" during the pandemic, leaving nearly 1-in-10 people undernourished mostly in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Recipients of food aid in Guatemala during the pandemic
Recipients of food aid in Guatemala during the pandemic (AN/David Amsler)

GENEVA (AN) — World hunger "shot up" during the coronavirus pandemic leaving nearly 1-in-10 people undernourished mostly in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, five U.N. agencies reported on Monday.

Hunger afflicted 9.9% of the world's 7.8 billion population in 2020, up from 8.4% a year earlier, with "much of it likely related to the fallout of COVID-19," according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, World Food Program and  World Health Organization.

"Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, particularly the most vulnerable and those living in fragile contexts," the directors of the organizations wrote in a foreword to their 2021 "State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World" report.

"No region of the world has been spared," they said. "The high cost of healthy diets and persistently high levels of poverty and income inequality continue to keep healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people in every region of the world."

The agencies estimated 768 million people faced hunger last year, or 118 million more than in 2019, making for the biggest year-on-year increase in a decade and a half. The number of people who were food "insecure," meaning they had insufficient food quantity or quality, surged to 2.38 billion, up by 318 million.

Among those who went hungry, more than half, or 418 million, lived in Asia; a third, or 282 million, were in Africa; and 60 million were in Latin America and the Caribbean. Women and kids were most affected. Nearly a third of all women of reproductive age had anemia, the report said, while 149 million children younger than five were stunted by malnutrition.

"Efforts to eradicate malnutrition in all its forms have been challenged by disruptions in essential nutrition interventions and negative impacts on dietary patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic," the directors wrote. "Not only have measures to contain the spread of the pandemic resulted in an unprecedented economic recession, but also other important drivers are behind recent setbacks in food security and nutrition. These include conflict and violence in many parts of the world as well as climate-related disasters all over the world."

'Worse than expected'

The organizations estimated 660 million people will likely remain hungry by the end of this decade — largely because of setbacks from the global health crisis that WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020 — contrary to the United Nations' goal of zero hunger among its 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Some of that is due to climate shocks and stresses, which U.N. officials say are a key factor contributing to the pandemic-fueled rise of hunger. However, the report outlines measures that policymakers can take to lessen the expected harm.

It recommends offering climate risk insurance and forecast-based financing to smallholder farmers, boosting in-kind or cash support programs for people to buy food and making it easier for fruit and vegetable growers to access markets.

The report also advises planting more so-called "biofortified" crops — cultivated plans that are nutritionally enhanced — in an effort to bring modern biotechnology techniques, conventional plant breeding, and agronomic practices to poor communities and to help consumers choose healthier foods.

"The reality is worse than expected," said World Food Program chief economist Arif Husian.

"In one year alone, the number of people in the grip of chronic hunger has risen more than in the previous five years combined," Husian said. "Reversing such high levels of chronic hunger will take years, if not decades. We must commit now to working together at the national, regional and global levels to build lives back better and quicker. The cost of inaction is simply too high for all of us.”