Blog Post

The world is not on track to end hunger: 2021 SOFI report released

Our window of opportunity for achieving SDG 2 — eradicating hunger and malnutrition and ensuring access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food for all by 2030 — is closing rapidly. However, far from moving closer to that goal, the world has seen a resurgence of hunger and food insecurity.

The numbers are grim. According to the 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report (SOFI), released last week, the number of people facing hunger rose by  between 118 and 161 million in 2020. In the same year, the number of people without access to adequate food rose by a stunning 320 million. Today, nearly one in three people around the world does not have access to adequate food, and almost 12 percent of the world’s population was severely food-insecure in 2020.

No region of the world has escaped the impacts of rising hunger and malnutrition. The majority of people facing hunger are in Asia (418 million) and Africa (282 million). These regions also account for the majority of children suffering from wasting, stunting, and overweight. In terms of proportion of the population hungry, the prevalence of hunger rose by 3 percentage points in Africa, by 2 percentage points in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and by 1.1 percentage points in Asia in 2020. Hunger now affects 46 million more people in Africa, 57 million more in Asia, and 14 million more in LAC than in 2019.

The prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity rose by 9 percentage points in Latin America and the Caribbean, by 5.4 percentage points in Africa, and by 3.1 percentage points in Asia. Highlighting the growing threat of food insecurity in all regions of the world, the SOFI report points out that prevalence of food insecurity, as measured by the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, also rose in North America and Europe for the first time since data began to be collected in 2014.

In addition, the high cost of healthy food combined with persistent income inequality continues to put a nutritious diet out of reach for significant numbers of people. Nearly 3 billion people could not afford to eat a healthy diet in 2019, the report finds. Of these, 1.85 billion live in Asia, 1 billion live in Africa, 113 million live in LAC, and around 17 million live in North America and Europe.

The situation regarding nutrition indicators is equally bleak. While the prevalence of child stunting has decreased since 2000, nearly 150 million children under the age of five remain stunted. An estimated 45.4 million (6.7 percent) children under five also suffer from wasting, and around 38.9 million (5.7 percent) are overweight. While child overweight has remained relatively stable globally, regional rates continue to increase in many places. Prevalence of adult obesity has also been on the rise, increasing globally to 13.1 percent in 2016 (the latest year for which data are available).

The 2021 SOFI report echoes other recent research, such as the Global Report on Food Crises, in identifying conflict, climate change, economic shocks, and the COVID-19 pandemic as drivers of the worsening food security situation. Conflict, climate shocks, and economic shocks have continued to increase in both intensity and frequency, according to the report, with more countries and regions experiencing multiple factors concurrently. In places experiencing some combination of these factors, 68 percent of the population cannot afford to eat a healthy diet. This is significantly higher than countries experiencing climate change, conflict, or economic downturn alone (39 percent). The report also finds that people are least able to afford healthy food in places with ongoing conflict.

The pandemic only exacerbated these existing challenges, with significant negative effects, particularly for poor populations. The report states that nearly all low- and middle-income countries experienced economic downturns in 2020 as a result of the pandemic and that undernourishment in these countries grew by more than five times the highest increase seen in the previous 20 years. And the effects of the pandemic are expected to linger. In 2030, an estimated 30 million more people may face hunger than would have without the COVID-19 outbreak.

These findings highlight the fragile state of the world’s food system, which became glaringly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many factors impacting food security around the world, a food systems approach is needed to find sustainable, effective solutions. The SOFI report recommends six pathways to help transform food systems, increase resiliency to conflict, climate change, and economic shocks, and sustainably ensure access to affordable, nutritious food. These pathways will need to take a cross-sectoral, cross-country approach as well to ensure that we work together to address the multiple drivers of hunger and food insecurity.

  1. Combine more immediate humanitarian aid policies with longer term development and peacebuilding policies in areas experiencing ongoing conflict. This will ensure not only that populations’ immediate food needs are met during times of crisis but also that long-term socio-economic drivers of conflict are addressed.
  2. Scale up policies and interventions aimed at increasing climate resilience. Food systems both affect and are affected by climate change, making them an important piece of the climate change puzzle. Climate-smart policies include efforts to manage food production and supply systems in more sustainable ways and to restore and protect natural environments.
  3. Strengthen the resilience of poor and vulnerable populations to economic shocks. These can include social protection programs, healthcare services, improved governance structures, and long-term economic and social policies.
  4. Address supply chain failures and inefficiencies to help lower the cost of healthy food. This includes greater investment in policies and technologies to improve efficiency gains and reduce food loss and waste.
  5. Ensure that policies and interventions are inclusive and pro-poor to better address structural inequalities along the food chain. Empowering women, youth, and rural smallholders can bring big gains for food systems as a whole. Policymakers, NGOs, and development practitioners should focus on increasing these populations’ access to agricultural inputs and technology, education and training, digital and communication technology, and financial tools like credit and insurance.
  6. Focus on changing consumer behavior to promote diets that are both healthy and environmentally sustainable. This could include establishing new laws and increasing investments in healthier food systems, as well as in consumer education about healthy diets.

2020 posed a serious blow to food and nutrition security around the world. To get back on track will require concerted, collaborative effort and a food systems approach to establish coherent policies and investments across the globe. The upcoming UN Food Systems Summit 2021 will continue the conversation regarding food system transformation and provide a series of actions policymakers, producers, and consumers can take to bring us closer to our goal of zero hunger.