Food Security & Nutrition around the World
Hunger is on the rise
For the third year in a row, there has been a rise in world hunger. The absolute number of undernourished people, i.e. those facing chronic food deprivation, has increased to nearly 821 million in 2017, from around 804 million in 2016. These are levels from almost a decade ago.
The number of hungry people is on the rise. 821 million people do not get enough food to eat.
The number of undernourished people in the world has been on the rise since 2014, reaching an estimated 821 million in 2017
- Prevalence (percentage)
- Number (millions)
*Projected values, illustrated by dotted lines and empty circles.
The share of undernourished people in the world population – the prevalence of undernourishment, or PoU – may have reached 10.9 percent in 2017. Persistent instability in conflict-ridden regions, adverse climate events in many regions of the world and economic slowdowns that have affected more peaceful regions and worsened the food security, all help to explain this deteriorating situation.
The situation is worsening in South America and most regions of Africa (Table 1). Africa remains the continent with the highest PoU, affecting almost 21 percent of the population (more than 256 million people). The situation is also deteriorating in South America, where the PoU has increased from 4.7 percent in 2014 to a projected 5.0 percent in 2017. Asia’s decreasing trend in undernourishment seems to be slowing down significantly. The projected PoU for Asia in 2017 is 11.4 percent, which represents more than 515 million people. Without increased efforts, the world will fall far short of achieving the SDG target of eradicating hunger by 2030.
Prevalence of undernourishment in the world, 2005 – 2017
|Prevalence of undernourishment (%)|
|Central Asia and Southern Asia||21.1||16.8||16.7||15.7||14.7||14.5|
|Eastern Asia and South-eastern Asia||15.2||11.5||10.1||9.0||8.9||8.9|
|Western Asia and Northern Africa||8.0||7.1||8.9||9.3||9.9||10.0|
|LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN||9.1||6.8||6.4||6.2||6.1||6.1|
|NORTHERN AMERICA AND EUROPE||< 2.5||< 2.5||< 2.5||< 2.5||< 2.5||< 2.5|
Progress towards improving nutrition
Progress in child stunting and exclusive breastfeeding but not in anaemia
Overall, there has been some progress regarding stunting and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. The number of stunted children has decreased from 165.2 million in 2012 to 150.8 million in 2017, a 9 percent decline. Yet, the number is still unacceptably high and the road to reaching the 2030 target is still long.
In 2017, 40.7 percent of infants below six months of age were exclusively breastfed, up from 36.9 percent in 2012. Rates of exclusive breastfeeding in Africa and Asia are 1.5 times those in Northern America where only 26.4 percent of infants under six months receive breastmilk exclusively.
Conversely, anaemia among women of reproductive age is not improving. The prevalence of anaemia among women of reproductive age has risen incrementally from 30.3 percent in 2012 to 32.8 percent in 2016 with no region showing a decline. Shamefully, one in three women of reproductive age globally is still affected by anaemia, with significant health and development consequences for both women and their children.
There is still a long road ahead to achieve the 2025 and 2030 targets for stunting, wasting, overweight, exclusive breastfeeding, anaemia in women and adult obesity
(women of reproductive age)
In 2017, 7.5 percent of children under five – 50.5 million – were affected by wasting (low weight for height) consequently putting them at a higher risk of mortality. An analysis from 2013 indicated that 875 000 deaths (or 12.6 percent of all deaths) among children under five years of age were related to wasting, of which 516 000 deaths (7.4 percent of all deaths among under-fives) were related to severe wasting.
Child overweight and adult obesity
Since 2012, the global proportion of overweight children remains relatively stagnant, with 5.4 percent in 2012 and 5.6 percent (or 38.3 million) in 2017. Of these 38.3 million overweight children, 25 percent live in Africa and 46 percent live in Asia.
Adult obesity, on the other hand, is worsening. Adult obesity rates continue to rise each year, from 11.7 percent in 2012 to 13.2 percent in 2016. This means that in 2017 more than one in eight adults, or more than 672 million, in the world is obese.
The prevalence of obesity among adults in the world has been increasing steadily between 1975 and 2016 – and at an accelerated pace over the past decade. Adult obesity is highest in Northern America and the rate of increase in adult obesity is also the highest there. While Africa and Asia continue to have the lowest rates of obesity, an increasing trend can also be observed.
The multiple burden of malnutrition
As mentioned before, levels of childhood stunting and wasting persist across regions and countries; yet, simultaneously, there has been an increase in overweight and obesity, often in the same countries and communities with relatively high levels of child stunting. This coexistence of undernutrition with overweight and obesity is commonly referred to as the “double burden” of malnutrition. A large proportion of the world population is also affected by micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiencies, often called “hidden hunger” because there may be no visible signs. Iron deficiency anaemia in women of reproductive age is one form of micronutrient deficiency.
A large proportion of the world population is also affected by micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiencies. This often called “hidden hunger” because there may be no visible signs.
Many countries have a high prevalence of more than one form of malnutrition. This multiple burden of malnutrition is more prevalent in low-, lower-middle and middle-income countries and concentrated among the poor. Obesity in high-income countries is similarly concentrated among the poor. The coexistence of multiple forms of malnutrition can occur not only within countries and communities, but also within households – and can even affect the same person over their lifetime.
Pathways from food insecurity to malnutrition
Poor access to food and particularly healthy food contributes to undernutrition as well as overweight and obesity. It increases the risk of low birthweight, childhood stunting and anaemia in women of reproductive age, and it is linked to overweight in school-age girls and obesity among women, particularly in upper-middle- and high-income countries. There are several pathways from inadequate food access to multiple forms of malnutrition. Figure 14 illustrates two pathways: one leading from food insecurity to undernutrition and another leading to overweight and obesity.
Pathways from inadequate food access to multiple forms of malnutrition
- Undernutrition pathway
- Obesogenic pathway
Source: Created by FAO Statistic Division for this report
Food insecurity (unreliable access to food) can contribute to child wasting, stunting and micronutrient deficiencies by negatively affecting the adequacy of food consumption. A diet characterized by insufficient intake of calories, protein, vitamins and minerals will impede foetal, infant and child growth and development. Such diets contribute to maternal undernutrition and consequently to higher risk of low birthweight, which in turn are both risk factors for child stunting. The stress of living with food insecurity can also have a negative effect on the nutrition of infants by compromising breastfeeding.
Undernutrition and obesity coexist in many countries.
Although it may appear to be a paradox, food insecurity can also contribute to overweight and obesity. Nutritious, fresh foods often tend to be expensive. Thus, when household resources for food become scarce, people choose less expensive foods that are often high in calories and low in nutrients. This is particularly true in urban settings and upper-middle and high-income countries, although the negative effect of food insecurity on diet quality has been documented in low-, middle- and high-income countries alike.
There are also psychosocial factors that link food insecurity to obesity. The experience of not having certain or adequate access to food often causes feelings of anxiety, stress and depression, which in turn can lead to behaviours that increase the risk of overweight and obesity. These include patterns of binging or overeating when food is available (and continued availability uncertain), or choosing low-cost, energy-dense “comfort foods” rich in fat, sugar and salt. Such foods have been found to have physiological effects that reduce stress in the short term.
Disordered eating patterns and food deprivation are another component linking food insecurity to malnutrition. “Feast-and-famine” cycles cause metabolic changes that have been associated with an increase in body fat, decrease in lean muscle mass, and more rapid weight gain when food becomes plentiful.
In addition, maternal and infant/child food deprivation can result in foetal and early childhood “metabolic imprinting”, which increases the risk of obesity and diet-related on-communicable chronic diseases later in life. Maternal undernutrition – as well as overweight– caused by lack of stable access to adequate diets can cause metabolic, physiological and neuroendocrine changes in children, fueling intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.
The coexistence of multiple forms of malnutrition means that the two pathways described above do not work in isolation but rather impact each other. In this way, the undernutrition linked with food security might at the same time be linked with overweight and obesity. As described, food insecurity is associated with low birthweight in infants. Low birthweight is a risk factor for child stunting, which in turn is associated with overweight and obesity later in life. According to WHO, “Children who have suffered from undernutrition and were born with low birthweight or are short for-age (stunted) are at far greater risk of developing overweight and obesity when faced with energy-dense diets and a sedentary lifestyle later in life.” It is also worth noting that children who are stunted have a higher risk of being simultaneously overweight.
What can be done?
There is a need to implement and scale up interventions aimed at guaranteeing access to nutritious foods and breaking the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. The 1 000 days between conception and a child’s second birthday is a window of unsurpassed opportunity to both prevent child stunting and overweight and promote child nutrition, growth and development with lasting effects over the child’s life. Exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months and adequate complementary foods and feeding practices up to two years of age are key to ensuring normal child growth and development during this crucial window of opportunity.
Access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food must be framed as a human right, with priority given to the most vulnerable. Policies must pay special attention to the food security and nutrition of children under five, school-age children, adolescent girls and women in order to halt the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. A shift is needed towards nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems that provide safe and high quality food, promoting healthy diets for all.
Impact of Climate on Food Security & Nutrition
Last year SOFI pinpointed conflict and violence in several parts of the world as one of the main drivers of hunger and food insecurity, suggesting that efforts to fight hunger must go hand-in-hand with those to sustain peace. New evidence in this year’s report highlights that beside conflicts, climate variability and extremes are also a key force behind the recent rise in global hunger. They are also one of the leading causes of severe food crises.
The number of extreme climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s.
The number of extreme climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s, with an average of 213 of these events occurring every year during the period of 1990–2016. These harm agricultural productivity contributing to shortfalls in food availability, with knock-on effects causing food price hikes and income losses that reduce people’s access to food.
Increasing number of extreme climate-related disasters, 1990–2016
- Total Events
- Extreme temperature
Note: Total number of natural disasters that occurred in low- and middle-income countries by region and during the period 1990–2016. Disasters are defined as medium and large scale disasters that exceed the thresholds set for registration on the EM-DAT international disaster database.
See Annex 2, for the full definition of EM-DAT disasters.
Source: FAO elaboration based on data from Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT). 2009. EM-DAT [online] Brussels. www.emdat.be
Climate variability and extremes are already negatively undermining production of major crops in tropical regions and, without adaptation, this is expected to worsen as temperatures increase and become more extreme.
In many areas, climate extremes have increased in number and intensity, particularly where average temperatures are shifting upwards: very hot days are becoming more frequent and the hottest days are becoming hotter. Extreme heat is associated with increased mortality, lower labour capacity, lower crop yields and other consequences that undermine food security and nutrition.
In addition to increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall, the nature of rainy seasons is also changing, specifically the timing of seasonal climate events.
Within-season changes may not register as extreme climate events (droughts, floods or storms) but rather are aspects of climate variability that affect the growth of crops and the availability of pasture for livestock, with potentially significant implications for food security and nutrition.
Several countries – notably in Africa, Central America and Southeast Asia – experienced drought, not only through abnormally low total accumulated rainfall, but also through lower rainfall intensities and fewer days of rainfall.
Drought’s direct connection to hunger
Food security and nutrition indicators can clearly be associated with an extreme climate event, such as a severe drought, that critically challenges agriculture and food production.
Of all natural hazards, floods, droughts and tropical storms affect food production the most. Drought, in particular, causes more than 80 percent of the total damage and losses in agriculture, especially for the livestock and crop production subsectors. In relation to extreme events, the fisheries subsector is most affected by tsunamis and storms, while most of the economic impact on forestry is caused by floods and storms. If a drought is severe and widespread enough, it can potentially affect national food availability and access, as well as nutrition, thus magnifying the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) nationally.
Severe droughts are worsening global hunger and reversing progress already made.
Hunger is significantly worse in countries with agricultural systems that are highly sensitive to rainfall and temperature variability and severe drought, where the livelihood of a high proportion of the population depends on agriculture and where the country does not have in place sufficient support measures to counter the fallout. In other words, for almost 36 percent of the countries that experienced a rise in undernourishment since 2005, this coincided with the occurrence of severe agricultural drought.
Out of 27 countries with increasing change points in the prevalence of undernourishment occurring under severe drought stress conditions, most (19 countries) are in Africa, with the remaining four in Asia, three in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one in Eastern Europe.
A closer review reveals that many countries have witnessed periods of increased undernourishment over the past years; however, during the period of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event of 2015–2016 this change across so many countries contributed to a reversal of the PoU trend at the global level.
The case of El Nino
The temperature anomalies associated with El Niño show that climate variability and extremes affect agriculture. If we look at increasing change points in the PoU time series we see that many correspond to occurrences of severe drought. For example, for almost 36 percent of the countries that experienced a rise in undernourishment since 2005, this coincided with the occurrence of severe drought.
Most striking is the significant increase in the number of change points related to severe drought conditions in 2014–2015 in which nearly two-thirds of the change points occurred. In these cases,the PoU increased from 2015 onwards, and this can be linked to severe droughts driven by El Niño in 2015–2016. A closer review reveals that many countries have witnessed periods of increased undernourishment over the past years; however, during the period of the ENSO event of 2015–2016 this change across so many countries contributed to a reversal of the PoU trend at the global level.
This association is further corroborated by a number of studies that show a strong link between drought and stunting in children. For example, drought events in Bangladesh are associated with a higher stunting rate around five and nine months after the beginning of the drought event. In rural Zimbabwe, one- to two-year olds exposed to drought face significantly lower growth velocity compared to children of the same age living in areas with average rainfall. In sub-Saharan Africa, warmer and drier climates are related to declining food availability and increased prevalence estimates of childhood stunting
Climate variability and extremes are among the key drivers behind the rise in hunger.
Increased exposure to climate variability and extremes
Exposure of countries to climate variability and extremes is also a rising trend. In 2017, the average of the PoU in countries with high exposure to climate shocks was 3.2 percentage points above that of countries with low or no exposure. Even more striking is that countries with high exposure have more than doubled the number of undernourished people as those without high exposure.
Higher prevalence and number of undernourished people in countries with high exposure to climate extremes
- Number of undernourished 2017 (millions)
- Prevalence of undernourishment 2017
NOTES: Prevalence (unweighted) and number of undernourished people in low- and middle-income countries with high and low exposure to climate extremes during the period of 2011–2016. Countries with high exposure are defined as being exposed to climate extremes (heat, drought, floods and storms) for more than 66 percent of the time, i.e. for more than three years in the period 2011–2016; low exposure is three years or less. See Annex 2 for the list of countries with high exposure to climate extremes and methodology.
See Annex 2, for the full definition of EM-DAT disasters.
SOURCE: C. Holleman, F. Rembold and O. Crespo (forthcoming). The impact of climate variability and extremes on agriculture and food security: an analysis of the evidence and case studies. FAO Agricultural Development Economics Technical Study 4. Rome, FAO, for classification of countries with high and low exposure to climate extremes; FAO for data on prevalence of undernourishment.
A high dependence on agriculture, as measured by the number of people employed in the sector, leaves the PoU 9.6 percentage points higher (25 percent). For low-income countries, the increase is equal to 13.6 percentage points (29 percent).
The finding is different for middle-income countries where the rise in PoU is less pronounced and occurs later (from 2015–2016). This tends to indicate that middle-income countries were able to absorb the impacts of increased exposure to climate extremes, but may not have been able to cope as well in the 2015–2016 period, possibly due to the severity of exposure to El Niño.
Other factors may have also come into play during this period, for example the economic slowdowns that many Latin American countries experienced, which reduced the fiscal environment to implement social programmes and thus diminished these countries’ capacity to cope with the aftermath of extreme climate events.
Extreme events & food crises
While hunger is on the rise, it is equally alarming that the number of people facing crisis-level food insecurity continues to increase.
In 2017, almost 124 million people across 51 countries and territories faced “crisis” levels of acute food insecurity or worse, requiring immediate emergency action to safeguard their lives and preserve their livelihoods. This represents an increase compared to 2015 and 2016, when 80 and 108 million people, respectively, faced crisis levels.
Climate related disasters account now for more than 80 percent of all major internationally reported disasters.
In 34 of these 51 countries, more than 76 percent of the total populations facing crisis levels of acute food insecurity or worse – nearly 95 million people – were also affected by climate shocks and extremes. Where conflict and climate shocks occur together, the impact on acute food insecurity is more severe. In 2017, 14 out of the 34 food-crisis countries experienced the double impact of both conflict and climate shocks, which led to significant increases in the severity of acute food insecurity.
Floods cause more climate-related disasters globally than any other extreme climate event, with flood-related disasters seeing the highest increase – 65 percent – in occurrence over the last 25 years. The frequency of storms is not increasing as much as that of floods, but storms are the second most frequent driver of climate-related disasters.
Climate variability impact on all dimensions of Food Security
The majority of people most vulnerable to climate shocks and natural hazards are the world’s 2.5 billion small-scale farmers, herders, fishers and forest-dependent communities, who derive their food and income from renewable natural resources.
In 2015-2016, the drought caused by El Niño resulted in losses of 50-90 percent of the crop harvest in the dry corridor, especially in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Climate variability and extremes have the strongest direct impact on food availability, given the sensitivity of agriculture to climate and the primary role of the sector as a source of food and livelihoods for the rural poor. However, the overall fallout is far more complex and greater than the impacts on agricultural productivity alone.
Climate variability and extremes are undermining all dimensions of food security: food availability (with losses in productivity that undermine food production and increase food imports); food access (causing spikes in food prices and volatility, especially following climate extremes, income loss for those who depend on agriculture); food utilization and food safety (worsened or reduced dietary consumption, reduced quality and safety of food because of crop contamination, outbreaks of pests and diseases because of rainfall intensity or changes in temperature.
Climate variability puts all aspects of food security at risk: the amount of food produced, people’s access to it, people’s ability to absorb nutrients and the safety of the food itself.
Direct and indirect climate-driven impacts have a cumulative effect, leading to a downward spiral of increased food insecurity and malnutrition.
As mentioned, an obvious impact is that climate variability and extremes negatively affect agricultural productivity, in terms of changes in crop yields (the amount of agricultural production harvested per unit of land area), cropping areas (area planted or harvested), or cropping intensity (number of crops grown within a year).
Crop and livestock sub-sectors incur the highest damages and losses in agriculture due to climate-related disasters, of which drought is the most destructive, 2006–2016
A) Damage and loss in agriculture as share of total damage and loss across all sectors by type of hazard
B) Damage and loss in agriculture by agricultural sub-sector, percentage share of total
NOTES: FAO, based on Post Disaster Needs Assessments (PDNA), 2006–2016. The sectors of fisheries, aquaculture and forestry often are under-reported. Impact of disasters on forestry is generally acknowledged in assessments, although rarely quantified in monetary terms.
See Annex 2, for the full definition of EM-DAT disasters.
SOURCE: FAO. 2018. The impact of disasters and crises on agriculture and food security 2017. Rome.
In addition, climate variability and extremes also affect food imports as countries try to compensate for domestic production losses. The impacts on production will inevitably translate into loss of income for people whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and natural resources, reducing their ability to access food.
Another factor is spikes in food prices and volatility follow climate extremes. Climate anomalies, and in particular extreme events, alter agricultural yields, production and stocks. Episodes of high food price volatility pose a major threat to food access, especially in low- and middle-income countries and among poorer groups in high-income countries. The impact of price spikes and volatility not only falls heaviest on the urban poor, but also of small-scale food producers, agriculture labourers and the rural poor who are net food buyers.
Climate variability and extremes also lead to income loss for those whose livelihoods depend on agriculture and natural resources, which then negatively impact food access as households have less resources to purchase food. Household studies provide evidence that access to food and income of small family agriculture households is negatively impacted by climate variability and extremes. There is also evidence that climate shocks not only affect the level of income, but affect also the variability of incomes.
The impact of price volatility falls heaviest on net food buyers, which are not only the urban poor, but also small-scale food producers, agriculture labourers and the rural poor.
Changes in climate also heavily impact nutrition through impaired nutrient quality and dietary diversity of foods produced and consumed; impacts on water and sanitation, with their implications for patterns of health risks and disease; and changes in maternal and child care and breastfeeding.
Households adopt coping strategies in response to food and income reductions and increased prices following climate shocks. Coping strategies, including eating fewer meals per day and less at each meal, skipping meals and eating less nutrient-dense foods and/or more calorie-dense foods high in fat, sugars and salt, compromise dietary diversity and quality.
More erratic rainfall and higher temperatures along with other extreme events affect the quality and safety of food. Changing climate conditions and extremes such as temperature and humidity can lead to increased contamination of water and food. Even increased contamination of water used for irrigation can affect the safety of crops and animals that consume them, as well as the resulting food output. Unsafe water and food create a vicious cycle of diarrhoea and malnutrition, threatening the nutritional status of the most vulnerable.
Studies have linked El Niño events with increased incidence of disease in human populations. In East Africa, over half of El Niño occurrences have been accompanied by corresponding Rift Valley Fever outbreaks.
Furthermore, climate extremes often directly affect human health through changes in temperature and precipitation and natural hazards. These increase the risk of disease, which further compromises food security and nutrition. Disease interferes with the body´s ability to absorb nutrients, which can negatively affect the nutritional status of adults and children.
Climate-related disasters create and sustain poverty, contributing to increased food insecurity and malnutrition as well as current and future vulnerability to climate extremes. They also have impacts on livelihoods and livelihoods assets – especially of the poor – contributing to greater risk of food insecurity and malnutrition. Prolonged or recurrent climate extremes lead to diminished coping capacity, loss of livelihoods, distress migration and destitution.
Climate resilience is one solution. It is important to strengthen food systems and people’s livelihoods to anticipate and adapt to the effects of climate variability and extremes.
Addressing climate variability and extremes and their impact on food security and nutrition requires a focus on resilience. Context-specific interventions aimed at anticipating, limiting, and adapting to the effects of climate variability and extremes and building the resilience of livelihoods, food systems and nutrition to climatic shocks and stresses.
Scaled-up actions across sectors are urgently needed to strengthen the resilience of livelihoods and food systems to climate variability and extremes. Such actions should take place through integrated disaster risk reduction and management and climate change adaptation policies, programmes and practices with short-, medium- and long-term vision
Implementation of climate resilience policies and programmes means adopting and refitting tools and interventions such as: risk monitoring and early warning systems; emergency preparedness and response; vulnerability reduction measures; shock-responsive social protection, risk transfers and forecast-based financing; and strong risk governance structures in the environment–food–health system nexus.
Solutions require increased partnerships, enhanced risk management capacities and multi-year, predictable large-scale funding of disaster risk reduction and management and climate change adaption policies, programmes and practices.