Global Hunger Paradox: Record Food, Rising Starvation

Oct 14 , 2023
By Stephen Devereux

In a world that produces enough food for everyone, hunger should not be accepted as an immutable fact of life, writes Stephen Devereux, a development economist with expertise in food security, and a research fellow with the Food Equity Center at the Institute of Development Studies, in this commentary provided by Project Syndicate (PS).

From the 1960s until the mid-2010s, hunger was on the decline around the world. But, despite record food production, the trend is reversing. The problem is not confined to low-income countries. Large numbers of people in wealthier countries like the United Kingdom (UK), South Africa, and Brazil are unable to meet their basic nutritional needs. Our recent research suggests inequitable food systems and widespread hunger could become the new normal.

Around 828 million people were affected by hunger globally in 2021, an increase of 46 million from the previous year and 150 million from 2019.

In the UK, the world's sixth-largest economy, roughly one in seven experienced food poverty in September last year, with more than 2,000 food banks operating across the country; there were fewer than 100 a decade or so ago.

In Brazil, poverty and food insecurity had fallen to their lowest levels by the early 2010s. But much of this progress has been reversed in recent years, owing to a recession that began in 2014 and deepened in 2015. The economic crisis coincided with, and was amplified by, a period of political turmoil, resulting in the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. When former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, his government made no effort to reduce hunger or poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic soon exacerbated both.

By 2022, an estimated 125 million Brazilians – more than half of the population – faced some degree of food insecurity, with 33 million living in hunger. Black and brown communities, women-led households, and low-income families with young children are disproportionately affected.

As in Brazil, hunger in South Africa, where I grew up, is rooted in historical legacies, and food insecurity persists despite the constitution's explicit recognition of people's right to adequate nutrition. Nearly 45pc of the population experienced moderate or extreme food insecurity between 2018 and 2020 – twice as many as in Brazil during that period.

We produce more than enough food to feed the world's population. What is going wrong, and how can it be fixed?

The first problem is that governments remain unwilling to act. In the UK, there is a lack of political will to address deepening inequalities, and the country's inadequate welfare system has forced food banks and charities to pick up the slack. That will change only when rising levels of hunger start to cost politicians votes.

In South Africa, civil society organizations and the media are working to raise awareness about food insecurity and hold the government to account. Since March 2022, for example, the online newspaper Daily Maverick has published a series of articles about hunger in South Africa under the title "Food Justice". Many NGOs in the country, like Gift of Givers, provide food to those in need, while other groups pressure the government to deliver on its mandate to ensure the right to food. Such efforts, indeed, point in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.

The second problem is familiar worldwide: victim blaming, like the UK politicians who claim that people use food banks because they cannot cook or manage their household budget. This is as inaccurate as it is unproductive: structural disparities and power imbalances, not individual choices, drive food insecurity, hitting small-scale farmers, marginalised groups, and women the hardest.

To overcome the underlying systemic hunger and poverty, the people most vulnerable to food insecurity must be at the centre of efforts to create more equitable food systems that improve both their access to nutrition and their livelihoods. That means supporting community-led initiatives designed with marginalised groups' needs in mind. It will also be critical to develop local and national policies targeting historical inequities and ensure that those suffering from hunger are included in decision-making at all levels.

The UK city of Brighton and Hove offers a good example of how community groups and government officials can work together to address hunger and poverty. By using a "whole-system approach", whereby different departments of the local government (including health, planning, and transportation) collaborated with school kitchens and community organizations, the city improved access to healthy food and reduced childhood obesity rates. Moreover, successive food and food-poverty strategies since 2006 have enabled stakeholders to identify relevant issues and adapt programs as needed.

This long-term vision, coupled with a cross-sectoral approach not limited to food organisations, has been key to the city's success.

Ultimately, coordinated action is fundamental to creating more equitable outcomes. We need to question how food systems function and who benefits the most from them. Researchers, activists, and charities must work with local, national, and global leaders to correct the structural shortcomings in food production, processing, distribution, and consumption. In a world that produces enough food for everyone, we should never accept hunger as an immutable fact of life. No one should worry about where their next meal is coming from or if it is coming at all.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 14,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1224]

Stephen Devereux, a development economist with expertise in food security, and a research fellow with the Food Equity Center at the Institute of Development Studies.

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