The challenges facing global food security continue to increase, driven by ongoing conflict and climate shocks. According to the 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report (released last week by FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO), 821 million people were undernourished around the world in 2017; this represents a further rise from the 815 million estimated by the 2017 report. This troubling rise in undernourishment reverses progress seen over the past decade.

The annual report measures progress toward SDG targets 2.1 and 2.2 (ensuring access to food for all and ending all forms of malnutrition) using two measures of food insecurity – prevalence of undernourishment and prevalence of food insecurity. The latter measure is estimated using data collected for a representative sample of all individuals, asking them about their ability to access food. It measures moderate and severe food insecurity along the “Food Insecurity Experience Scale.”

Rates of undernutrition and insecurity have worsened over the past year in South America and most regions of Africa. For example, in Africa as a whole, 20.4 percent of the population suffered from undernourishment in 2017, up from 19.7 percent in 2016. Asia’s trend of decreasing undernourishment also appears to be slowing significantly; the prevalence of undernourishment fell from 17.3 percent in 2005 to 11.5 percent in 2016, but only from 11.5 percent to 11.4 percent between 2016 and 2017.

In addition to an increase in undernutrition, the report also emphasizes that child stunting remains a significant global challenge. An estimated 151 million children under the age of five (over 22 percent) worldwide suffered from stunting in 2017. While this represents a slight decline from the 22.9 percent of children stunted in 2016 and a larger decline from the 29.5 percent stunted in 2005, the number of stunted children around the world remains unacceptably high.

More than 672 million adults around the world also suffer from obesity, and more than 38 million children under the age of five are overweight. In many countries, populations suffer from both undernutrition and overweight/obesity. For example, of the 38 million children overweight, 25 percent live in Africa. The report cites several ways in which food insecurity contributes to overweight/obesity, including the higher cost of nutritious food, the stress of living with food insecurity, and physiological adaptations to low calorie intake. As a result of these factors, food-insecure families face higher risk of both undernourishment and overweight/obesity. In addition, reduced food access also increases the risk of low birthweight and childhood stunting, both of which have been associated with higher risk of overweight and obesity later in life.

Finally, one in three women of reproductive age suffer from anemia, which is linked to a lack of iron in the diet. The condition poses serious health and development consequences for both the women affected and for their children. This prevalence rate has not changed in any region of the world over the past year, making it of serious concern.

Taken together, all of these trends suggest that we are not on track reach the SDG target of eradicating hunger by 2030.

As noted in last year’s report, conflict plays a key role in increasing food insecurity around the world. While acknowledging the continuing role of this factor, the 2018 report turns its attention to climate variability and extreme weather. The report cites climate as one of the main factors behind recent severe food crises.

Since 1990, the number of extreme climate-related disasters has steadily increased. Globally, the number of extremely hot days (temperatures in the 90th percentile) grew between 2011 and 2016, compared to previous decades. Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and some other countries in East Africa and Central Asia have all experienced three or more years during the 2011-2016 period in which the maximum daily temperatures were much more frequently extreme than the long-term average (1981-2016).

The report also cites changes in rainfall seasonality in many areas, including Africa, as well as much more variable overall precipitation.

Changes in climate, including increased temperatures and extreme weather events, have already posed challenges for the production of staple food crops (wheat, rice, and maize) in tropical and temperate regions. For example, the strong El Niño that occurred in 2015–2016 resulted in severe drought in many countries; these regions often faced subsequent reductions in food availability and increases in food prices. The report also finds that the prevalence and number of undernourished people is higher in countries that face climate extremes, as well as in countries whose population depends largely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

This climate variability and extreme weather events impact all aspects of food security, including food availability, food access, food utilization, and food stability. The report looked at years in which undernourishment increased after having decreased or stabilized for several years; the results suggest that for almost 36 percent of countries that have seen an increase in the number and prevalence of undernourished people since 2005, this increase coincided with an occurrence of severe drought.

The number of low- and middle-income countries that regularly face these climate extremes has also grown, from 83 percent of countries in 1996-2000 to 96 percent in 2011-2016. These countries also appear to be facing increased changes in seasonality, the report finds. Fifty-one low- and middle-income countries experienced either early or delayed onset of seasons in 2017, 29 experienced shorter seasons, and 28 experienced both changes in the start and duration of seasons. These changes can impact crop growth and the availability of pasture for livestock and pose additional challenges for food security and nutrition.

In 2017, 51 countries faced crisis levels of acute food insecurity or higher; 34 of these countries also faced climate shocks and extreme weather, and in 20 of these countries, these shocks were a major factor driving food insecurity levels. In the countries facing climate shocks and extreme weather in 2017, 29 million people required urgent humanitarian assistance.
The report concludes with a strong call to action to accelerate and scale up interventions to help strengthen populations’ resilience to climate variability and extreme weather events. Agricultural livelihoods, food systems, and nutrition all must see enhanced resilience through programs and investments that address both the direct impacts of climate change and these systems’ underlying vulnerabilities. These solutions will require committed, large-scale partnerships and funding of risk management and climate change adaptation programs that address short-term solutions, such as cash transfer programs and other social safety nets as well as long-term solutions, such as climate-smart agriculture practices and on- and off-farm diversification.

Existing global platforms, such as the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, and the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, should be used to help national governments identify measures to prevent and reduce climate and food security risk. Increased investment in data collection and scientific research and development will also be needed to enhance the accuracy of early warning/early action systems and adaptation mechanisms, such as weather-based index insurance.

Finally, addressing the challenges posed by climate variability and extreme weather events will require a participatory, inclusive, and gender-based approach in order to work with local stakeholders to identify the risks faced by communities and individuals. This will include taking advantage of local knowledge and practices and engaging with communities openly and transparently to build community ownership of interventions, take into account cultural and gender issues, and ensure long-term sustainability.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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