The number of people suffering from extreme hunger reached an all-time high in 2021 and is on track to increase further this year—unless wealthy countries ramp up efforts to “tackle the root causes of food crises rather than just responding after they occur.”
That’s the key message of an annual report published Wednesday by the Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAFC), an international alliance of the United Nations, the European Union, and several governmental and non-governmental agencies whose joint mission is to ensure that everyone in the world has enough to eat on a daily basis.
GNAFC found that roughly 193 million people in 53 countries or territories experienced acute food insecurity last year—an increase of nearly 40 million people compared with 2020, which was also a record-breaking year. More than half a million people in Ethiopia, southern Madagascar, South Sudan, and Yemen faced famine conditions and required urgent lifesaving aid to avert widespread livelihood collapse, starvation, and death.
Thirty-nine countries or territories have been featured in every edition of the report since it was first published six years ago. Acute food insecurity almost doubled in those places between 2016 and 2021, and there has been a continuous surge since 2018.
As the report makes clear, the convergence of armed conflict, extreme weather stemming from the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency, and the intensification of poverty and inequality are pushing acute hunger to unprecedented levels.
According to GNAFC, the main factors underlying the increase in acute food insecurity in 2021 were:
- Conflict (main driver pushing 139 million people in 24 countries/territories into acute food insecurity, up from around 99 million in 23 countries/territories in 2020);
- Weather extremes (over 23 million people in eight countries/territories, up from 15.7 million in 15 countries/territories); and
- Economic shocks (over 30 million people in 21 countries/territories, down from over 40 million people in 17 countries/territories in 2020 mainly due to the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic).
“The tragic link between conflict and food insecurity is once again evident and alarming,” Qu Dongyu, director-general of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said in a statement.
Economic hardship was already rampant across much of the Global South prior to 2021 thanks to decades of capitalist predation. However, the uneven recovery from the coronavirus crisis—prolonged by inequitable access to vaccines, tests, and treatments—and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are now exacerbating suffering in low-income nations.
As agricultural output from one of the world’s most productive growing regions has significantly declined due to Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, food prices have hit record highs in recent weeks. As a result, tens of millions of people living in war-torn and drought-stricken regions that are heavily reliant on food imports—including the occupied Palestinian territories, several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and parts of East Africa—are at increased risk of extreme hunger.
Meanwhile, “resource mobilization to efficiently tackle the root causes of food crises due to, among others, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, global hotspots and the war in Ukraine, still struggles to match the growing needs,” said Dongyu.
David Beasley, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program, stressed that “the global situation just keeps on getting worse.”
“Conflict, the climate crisis, Covid-19, and surging food and fuel costs have created a perfect storm—and now we’ve got the war in Ukraine piling catastrophe on top of catastrophe,” said Beasley. “Millions of people in dozens of countries are being driven to the edge of starvation. We urgently need emergency funding to pull them back from the brink and turn this global crisis around before it’s too late.”
Emily Farr, a global food security and livelihoods expert at Oxfam International, condemned wealthy countries in particular for their “catastrophically inadequate” response to soaring rates of extreme hunger.
“Even as the alarm bells have been sounding, governments across the globe collectively failed to tackle this mass suffering and deprivation,” Farr lamented. “There are no more excuses. All the warnings are there for countries facing famine-like conditions such as Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Yemen. The world has the tools that have anticipated this worsening hunger and yet continues to choose not to act fast or adequately enough.”
“G7 governments and the E.U. have pledged $2.6 billion into the U.N.’s humanitarian appeals to date but these pale in comparison to the promises they made last year to commit $8.5 billion to end famine,” said Farr. “To make matters even worse, some rich countries have effectively cut some of their international aid to countries facing mass hunger, malnutrition, and starvation such as Mali and Syria, as they diverted aid to other crises.”
Citing new data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Oxfam noted that “overall aid spending from 30 OECD members summed $179 billion dollars in 2021. Rich countries only committed 0.33% of their gross national income to development aid, the same as 2020, and well below the 0.7%, they promised back in 1970. In 2021, just five countries—Luxembourg, Norway, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark—have lived up to this promise.”
Farr emphasized that “hunger, in a world of plenty, is an avoidable tragedy.”
“Rich countries can save millions of people if they immediately fund the U.N. global appeals,” she said. “They can save lives now. Warring parties can help avert hunger by allowing aid to reach those at risk of dying from food insecurity and malnutrition.”
E.U. Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen, for her part, said that “the international community must act to avert the largest food crisis in history and the social, economic, and political upheaval that could follow.”
“The E.U. is committed to addressing all drivers of food insecurity: conflict, climate change, poverty, and inequalities,” said Urpilainen. “While it is necessary to provide immediate assistance to save lives and prevent famine, we must continue to help partner countries in transition to sustainable agri-food systems and resilient supply chains.”
To do their fair share, said Farr, rich nations “also must meet their responsibilities to cut their carbon dioxide emissions.”
“They are most responsible for the climate crisis which is causing chaos for farming and agricultural systems and driving hunger and displacement,” she added. “They should pay low-income countries for the loss and damage they are suffering, and to help smallholder farmers—especially female farmers—to adapt to climate change. This is not a matter of charity, but rather a question of justice.”