Globally, the number of countries suffering from severe hunger has decreased dramatically over the last two decades. But that achievement hides more dire news: We’re not making progress on global hunger fast enough to keep pace with climate change.
And over the last five years, the total number of undernourished people (the metric used in development language to measure hunger, meaning that a person does not get their daily caloric requirements) in the world actually increased, from 785 million to 822 million. What’s worse: The people who are going hungry primarily live in the developing world—the places most likely to get hit hardest as the world warms up, and also the areas whose footprints are least responsible for climate change.
That finding comes from the 2019 Global Hunger Index, an annual report card developed by international humanitarian group Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, a global food-aid group based in Germany. Since 2000, these organizations have been gathering existing hunger data from intergovernmental organizations—like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank—and combining it with their own studies and observations from being active in more than 40 countries hard hit by hunger issues.
“If we can sort of capture these trends and accompany that with some case studies—some ground truth—on an annual basis, hopefully it provides an important source of information for our colleague organizations,” says Ed Kenney, the vice president of communications at Concern Worldwide in the United States. “They can calibrate their approach to fighting hunger and food insecurity. And the UN system, governments, and other decision-makers can use it as a source in terms of thinking about where to deploy their resources by recognizing especially where the need is greatest.”
That might sound like a familiar refrain. As Fast Company has reported, the deceptive rate of progress in some places can overshadow the fact that there are often deep clusters of entrenched poverty being ignored. In fact, that’s one of Bill Gates’s key talking points these days.
The Global Hunger Index breaks out the positive trends over the past few decades but also casts a warning about what’s coming. “We’ve sort of gone from a serious too-alarming rate of hunger globally to a moderate to serious rate of hunger globally,” Kenney says. “[But] we can definitely prove based on our experience and on the data that climate change is a threat multiplier for hungry and undernourished people.”
As the index shows, 45 countries (in pink, orange, and red in the map above) are in danger of still suffering from chronic hunger by 2030, meaning a large portion of the world will fall behind the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It also highlights where intervention may be needed most. The place with the highest level of hunger is the Central African Republic, followed by Yemen, Chad, Madagascar, and Zambia. The rate of hunger has actually increased since 2010 in the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Yemen, and Venezuela. And because of harsh conflicts and governmental upheaval, there are nine countries where such metrics simply haven’t been calculated, including Libya, Somalia, and Syria.
The fears about what climate change will bring to these countries are threefold. First, in many cases struggling economies get hit even harder by three major problems: Over the last 30 years, the rate of extreme weather events has doubled, the group reports. In turn, whether it’s a storm, flood, drought, or fire, food often gets more scarce and pricey in the aftermath, which only makes rebuilding harder.
Second, there’s also evidence that the more carbon-dioxide-rich environment created largely by developed countries’ harmful emissions is causing some foods to become less nutritious as they grow. That’s especially harmful for people living on largely plant-based diets, the default setting in places where meat is too expensive.
Last, many places that grow their own food are seeing it spoil quicker—before they can sell or consume it to boost their health and welfare. As the report points out, “about one third of food is lost between the farm and market in low- and middle-income countries, and a similar amount is wasted in high-income countries between the market and the table.”
The fix to all this will take a global effort, but knowing where support can make the biggest difference is a good start. “It’s about large-scale action, radical transformation needed to address all these sort of complex and interlinked causes of hunger and climate change,” Kenney says. “So that means involving civil society at the country level, involving new classes of donors including the private sector and corporations, and making sure that finance and resourcing against hunger specifically relate to climate change.”