Projections now show the world is not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2, Zero Hunger by 2030 and, despite some progress, most indicators are also not on track to meet global nutrition targets. The food security and nutritional status of the most vulnerable population groups is likely to deteriorate further due to the health and socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 report.

The latest edition of that report, which was published mid-2021, estimated that between 720 and 811 million people went hungry in 2020. High costs and low affordability also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously. Considering the middle of the projected range (768 million), 118 million more people were facing hunger in 2020 than in 2019 – or as many as 161 million, considering the upper bound of the range.

The COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of global food systems - understood as all the activities and processes affecting the production, distribution and consumption of food.

Changes in world food markets

How swiftly the world market for food can change could be observed in the mid-2000s. For two decades, leading up to the millennium, global demand for food had increased steadily, along with growth in the world’s population, record harvests, new technologies, improvements in incomes, and the diversification of diets. Food prices continued to decline through 2000. However, in 2004, prices for most grains began to rise. Rising production could not keep pace with the even stronger growth in demand. Food stocks became depleted. And then, in 2005, food supply was squeezed by disappointing harvests in major food-producing countries. By 2006, world cereal production had fallen by 2.1 per cent. In 2007, rapid increases in oil prices increased fertilizer and other food production costs.

As international food prices reached unprecedented levels, countries sought ways to insulate themselves from potential food shortages and price shocks. Several food-exporting countries imposed export restrictions. Certain key importers began purchasing grains at any price to maintain domestic supplies. However, it also became evident that the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 undermined food security in many countries.

Healthy diets would help

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 report argues that once sustainability considerations are factored in, a global switch to healthy diets would help check the backslide into hunger while delivering enormous savings. It calculates that such a shift would allow the health costs associated with unhealthy diets, estimated to reach US$ 1.3 trillion a year in 2030, to be almost entirely offset; while the diet-related social cost of greenhouse gas emissions, estimated at US$ 1.7 trillion, could be cut by up to three-quarters.

The report urges a transformation of food systems to reduce the cost of nutritious foods and increase the affordability of healthy diets. While the specific solutions will differ from country to country, and even within them, the overall answers lie with interventions along the entire food supply chain, in the food environment, and in the political economy that shapes trade, public expenditure and investment policies. The study calls on governments to mainstream nutrition in their approaches to agriculture; work to cut cost-escalating factors in the production, storage, transport, distribution and marketing of food - including by reducing inefficiencies and food loss and waste; support local small-scale producers to grow and sell more nutritious foods, and secure their access to markets; prioritize children's nutrition as the category in greatest need; foster behaviour change through education and communication; and embed nutrition in national social protection systems and investment strategies.

The Millennium Development Goals and food

In 2000, world leaders gathered at the United Nations to shape a broad vision to fight poverty, which was translated into eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This remained, until 2015, the overarching development framework for the world. The global mobilization behind the Millennium Development Goals has produced the most successful anti-poverty movement in history. The MDG target of reducing by half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty was achieved in 2010, well ahead of the 2015 deadline. The proportion of undernourished people in the developing regions fell by almost half. However, a lot more work needs to be done. That work is now the focus of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals and food

Food is at the core of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN's development agenda for the 21st century. The second of the UN's 17 SDGs is to "End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture." Achieving this goal by the target date of 2030 will require a profound change of the global food and agriculture system. Some of the components of this goal are:

  • Ending hunger, and ensuring access by all people to safe, nutritious food;
  • Ending all forms of malnutrition;
  • Doubling the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers;
  • Ensuring sustainable food production systems;
  • Increasing investment in agriculture;
  • Correcting and preventing trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets;
  • Adopting measures to ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets.

Hunger and nutrition in numbers

  • After remaining virtually unchanged from 2014 to 2019, the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) climbed to around 9.9 percent in 2020, from 8.4 percent a year earlier.
  • It is estimated that between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020.
  • Around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030, in part due to lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on global food security.
  • Of the total number of undernourished people in 2020 (768 million): 282 million live in Africa, 418 million live in Asia, and  60 million live in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020 – that’s an increase of almost 320 million people in just one year.
  • The gender gap in the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity has grown even larger in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity being 10 percent higher among women than men in 2020, compared with 6 percent in 2019.
  • Globally, 149.2 million (22.0 percent) of children under the age of five years suffered from stunting (SDG Indicator 2.1.1) in 2020.

Zero Hunger Challenge

The United Nations Secretary-General launched the Zero Hunger Challenge in 2012 during the Rio+20 World Conference on Sustainable Development. The Zero Hunger Challenge was launched to inspire a global movement towards a world free from hunger within a generation. It calls for: Zero stunted children under the age of two 100% access to adequate food all year round All food systems are sustainable 100% increase in smallholder productivity and income Zero loss or waste of food.

Food Systems Summit

In 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The Summit launched bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems. Guided by five Action Tracks, the Summit brought together key players from the worlds of science, business, policy, healthcare and academia, as well as farmers, indigenous people, youth organizations, consumer groups, environmental activists, and other key stakeholders.

UN agencies working for food security

World Food Programme

The World Food Programme (WFP), aims to bring food assistance to more than 80 million people in 80 countries and is continually responding to emergencies. But WFP also works to help prevent hunger in the future. They do this through programmes that use food to build assets, spread knowledge and nurture stronger, more dynamic communities. This helps communities become more food secure.

World Bank

Investment in agriculture and rural development to boost food production and nutrition is a priority for the World Bank Group. The World Bank Group works with partners to improve food security and build a food system that can feed everyone, everywhere, every day. Activities include encouraging climate-smart farming techniques and restoring degraded farmland, breeding more resilient and nutritious crops and improving storage and supply chains for reducing food losses.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Achieving food security for all is at the heart of the efforts of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Its main purpose is to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. Its three main goals: the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition; the elimination of poverty and the driving forward of economic and social progress for all; and, the sustainable management and utilization of natural resources, including land, water, air, climate and genetic resources for the benefit of present and future generations. FAO also issues the food price index, which is a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities.

International Fund for Agricultural Development

The International  Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has focused exclusively on rural poverty reduction, working with poor rural populations in developing countries to eliminate poverty, hunger and malnutrition, raise their productivity and incomes, and improve the quality of their lives. All IFAD-funded programmes and projects address food and nutrition security in some way. IFAD has supported about 483 million poor rural people over the past four decades.