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U.N. warns 10% of world undernourished as hunger "shot up" amid COVID pandemic

Farmers and food banks face hunger crisis
Farmers and food banks face an expanding hunger crisis amid pandemic 02:45

United Nations — The United Nations warned on Monday that there has been a "dramatic worsening" during the coronavirus pandemic of the hunger crisis facing the planet. Food shortages exacerbated by COVID-19 and other factors have left about 10% of the world's population undernourished, according to the 2021 "State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World" report.

The report, compiled every year by a range of U.N. agencies, says hunger had already "started creeping upwards" in the years 2010-2015, but last year, "hunger shot up in both absolute and proportional terms, outpacing population growth."

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The overall proportion of the world's inhabitants who went undernourished during 2020, 10%, marked a dramatic increase from the 8.4% noted in the 2019 version of the report.  

The report breaks the numbers down by region, saying more than half of all undernourished people live in Asia.  

"But the sharpest rise in hunger was in Africa, where the estimated prevalence of undernourishment — at 21% of the population — is more than double that of any other region," the report says. 

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Just below the threshold for hunger, "close to 12% of the global population was severely food insecure in 2020, representing 928 million people, or 148 million more than in 2019." 

Several factors have driven the increase in hunger, according to the report, including conflicts and climate shocks, as well as low productivity and inefficient food supply chains that pushed up the cost of food.  

"High food prices are hunger's new best friend," said World Food Program Chief Economist Arif Husain.  

The report, subtitled "Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition, and affordable healthy diets for all," was a collaboration of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Program (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).   

Dr. Charles Owubah, chief executive of the non-profit Action Against Hunger, called hunger "both a cause and consequence of conflict," noting that: "An estimated 60% of the world's hungry people live in countries where there is starvation as a weapon of war — the majority of which are caused by disputes over food, water or the resources needed to produce them." 

He called the "huge jump in world hunger… alarming, but not entirely surprising," and said the cause could be boiled down to "three primary factors: COVID-19, the climate crisis and conflict."

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"All of these exacerbate underlying weaknesses in health, food and social protection systems, and threaten the lives of the most vulnerable members of society who are already struggling to survive," Dr. Owubah told CBS News. 

But the overarching theme in the report was the compounding factor of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has crippled many nations' economies and had a particularly devastating impact on those that were already weaker, especially in Asia and Africa.

"While it is not yet possible to fully quantify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we are concerned by the many millions of children under 5 years of age who were affected by stunting (149.2 million), wasting (45.4 million) or overweight (38.9 million). Child malnutrition continues to be a challenge," the report concludes.  

"It is an indictment on our entire food systems — from production to distribution and disposal — that in 2020, as many as 811 million men, women and children went without enough to eat," said Dr. Agnes Kalibata, the U.N. Secretary-General's special envoy for the Food Systems Summit in September.  

"Food security is also a matter of national security," Kalibata, a Rwandan who spent the first 30 years of her life as a refugee, told CBS News.  

The U.N.'s report makes a number of recommendations, including:  

  • Increase resilience across food systems by offering farmers wide access to climate risk insurance and forecast-based financing; 
  • Address the most vulnerable people through in-kind or cash support programs to lessen the impact of pandemic-style shocks or food price volatility; 
  • Encourage the planting of biofortified crops; and,  
  • Tackle poverty and structural inequalities, by boosting food value chains in poor communities through technology transfers and certification programs. 
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