Despite hopes that the world will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and food security will begin to improve, world hunger rose further in 2021. The increase in global hunger in 2021 reflects the widening disparities across and within countries due to an uneven pattern of economic recovery Between countries and unrecoverable income losses are among those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After remaining relatively unchanged since 2015, the prevalence of undernourishment jumped from 8.0 to 9.3 percent from 2019 to 2020 and rose at a slower pace in 2021 to 9.8 percent. Between 702 and 828 million people were affected by hunger in 2021. The number has increased by about 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic – an additional 103 million people between 2019 and 2020 and 46 million in 2021.
Projections indicate that approximately 670 million people will still face hunger in 2030 – 8 percent of the world’s population, the same as in 2015 when the 2030 Agenda was launched.
After the sharp increase in 2020, the global prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity remained mostly unchanged in 2021, but the level of acute food insecurity increased further, reflecting the deteriorating situation of people already facing serious hardship. About 2.3 billion people in the world experienced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021, and 11.7 percent of the world’s population faced food insecurity at severe levels.
Globally in 2020, an estimated 22 percent of children under five were stunted, 6.7 percent were wasted, and 5.7 percent were overweight. Children in rural areas and poor families, whose mothers had no formal education, were more likely to be stunted and wasted. Children in urban areas and wealthier families were more at risk of being overweight.
Steady progress has been made in exclusive breastfeeding, with 43.8 percent of children under six months of age being exclusively breastfed worldwide in 2020, up from 37.1 percent in 2012, but improvement must be accelerated to achieve the 2030 target. Females who reside in rural areas, in poor families, and whose mothers have not received any formal education are more likely to be breastfed.
Globally in 2019, one in three women aged 15-49 (571 million) was affected by anemia, and there has been no progress since 2012. Anemia affects more women in rural areas, in poor households and those who have not They receive a formal education.
Nearly 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020. This is 112 million more than in 2019, reflecting the inflation in consumer food prices caused by the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to contain it.
Recent setbacks indicate that policies are no longer yielding increasing marginal returns in reducing hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms. Governments with fragile economies also face financial constraints to change agri-food systems. This is the time for governments to begin examining their current support for food and agriculture.
Global support for food and agriculture amounted to approximately US$630 billion annually on average during the 2013-2018 period. The lion’s share of it is targeted at farmers individually, through trade and market policies and subsidies largely linked to the unrestricted production or use of variable production inputs. Not only does much of this support distort the market, but it fails to reach many farmers, harms the environment and discourages production of nutritious foods.
Agricultural production support is largely focused on staple foods, dairy products and other foods rich in animal-source protein, especially in high- and middle-income countries. Rice, sugar, and meat of various kinds are the most stimulating foods around the world, while fruits and vegetables are generally less supported, or even penalized, in some low-income countries.
Trade and market interventions can act as trade barriers to nutritious foods, undermining the availability and affordability of healthy diets. In many countries, subsidies have increased the availability and reduced prices of staple foods and their derivatives, discouraging the consumption of non-subsidized or less subsidized goods such as fruits, vegetables and pulses and making it relatively more expensive.
Done intelligently and informed by evidence, engaging all stakeholders, taking into account countries’ political economies and institutional capacities, and considering obligations and flexibility under WTO rules, reallocating existing public subsidies can help increase the availability of nutritious foods to the consumer. It can contribute to making healthy diets cheaper and more affordable worldwide, which is a necessary – albeit insufficient – requirement for healthy diets to be consumed.
When reallocating public subsidies to make healthy diets less costly, policymakers should avoid the potential inequality trade-offs that would arise if farmers were not in a position to specialize in producing nutritious foods due to resource constraints. To avoid trade-offs in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, low emission intensity technologies should be adopted to produce nutritious foods, and excessive production and consumption of emission-intensive goods should be curbed in high and middle income countries in high and middle income countries in line with dietary guidelines .
In low-income countries but also in some lower-middle-income countries where agriculture is central to the economy, jobs and livelihoods, governments need to increase and prioritize spending to provide services that collectively support food and agriculture. This is critical to filling productivity gaps in the production of nutritious foods and enabling income generation to improve the affordability of healthy diets, although it will require significant development funding.
Reallocating current public support for food and agriculture alone will not be enough. Healthy food environments must be promoted and consumers able to choose healthy diets by complementing agri-food systems policies. Social protection policies and the health system will be needed to mitigate the unintended consequences of redirecting support to the most vulnerable, particularly women and children. Policies for the environment, health, transport and energy systems will be needed to promote the positive results of reallocating support in the areas of efficiency, equity, nutrition, health, and climate and environmental mitigation.
The success of reallocation efforts will also be affected by the political and social context, governance, balances of power, differences in interests and ideas and stakeholder influence. Given the diversity of each country’s context, repurposing efforts will need strong institutions at the local, national and global levels, as well as the involvement and motivation of stakeholders from the public sector, the private sector, and international organizations.