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Zero hunger

Beyond hunger: Ensuring food security for all

Ending hunger entails ending chronic undernourishment (SDG target 2.1). Undernourishment occurs when “a person is unable to acquire enough food to meet daily minimum dietary energy requirements for one year”. It is a serious condition that can lead to stunting, other long-term effects on health, and diminished educational attainment.

After declining for a decade, the undernourished population is now rising. In 2019, more than 690 million people experienced hunger – an increase of nearly 60 million in 5 years.

Undernourishment is on the rise in some regions

Downward trendUpward trend
Sub-Saharan Africa
200020170102030
South Asia
200020170102030
Middle East & North Africa
200020170102030
East Asia & Pacific
200020170102030
Latin America & Caribbean
200020170102030
Europe & Central Asia
200020170102030
North America
200020170102030

Source: World Development Indicators (SN.ITK.DEFC.ZS)

Undernourishment is closely associated with severe food insecurity. Food insecurity manifests in different ways. These range from, from uncertainty around the ability to obtain food, having to compromise on food quality and variety, to not eating for an entire day.

The Food Insecurity Experience Scale

The Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) captures the breadth and complexity of hunger. Instead of using indirect measures of hunger based on income, consumption or nutrition status, the scale relies on survey data that directly asks about 1,000 households eight questions on a range of food insecurity experiences in each country. Their responses are used to define the probability of a household experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity (SDG indicator 2.1.2).

Questions in the Food Insecurity Experience Scale

During the last 12 months, was there a time when, because of lack of money or other resources:

You were worried you would not have enough food to eat?

You were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food?

You ate only a few kinds of foods?

You had to skip a meal?

You ate less than you thought you should?

Your household ran out of food?

You were hungry but did not eat?

You went without eating for a whole day?

Severe food insecurity is closely associated with being undernourished or experiencing hunger. Although moderate food insecurity may not directly signal undernourishment, it captures the population vulnerable to malnutrition and poor health. In fact, when comparing countries with similar levels of undernourishment and poverty, the State of Food Security and Nutrition Report 2019 finds that moderate food insecurity is also significantly correlated with obesity.

Today, one in four persons around the world experiences moderate or severe food insecurity, and one in eleven experiences severe food insecurity. Most households – nearly 1.3 billion out of 2 billion – that experience food insecurity are in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

In 5 years, food insecurity has worsened

Downward trendUpward trend
Sub-Saharan Africa
201420190204060
South Asia
201420190204060
Latin America & Caribbean
201420190204060
Middle East & North Africa
201420190204060
East Asia & Pacific
201420190204060
Europe & Central Asia
201420190204060
North America
201420190204060

Source: Food Insecurity Experience Scale, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa is staggering -- more than half the population experiences it. Until 2018 the total number of people experiencing at least moderate food insecurity was highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. After 2019, South Asia overtook Sub-Saharan Africa.

The questions on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale survey provide a nuanced view of how households experience food insecurity, as outlined in the following examples.

Guinea

You went without eating for a whole day?

02505007501,000
undefined, undefined
Household of undefined adults and undefined children
NaN
Probability of moderate or severe food insecurity: undefined%

You ate less than you thought you should?

02505007501,000
undefined, undefined
Household of undefined adults and undefined children
NaN
Probability of moderate or severe food insecurity: undefined%

You were worried you would not have enough food to eat?

02505007501,000
undefined, undefined
Household of undefined adults and undefined children
NaN
Probability of moderate or severe food insecurity: undefined%

Note: The data is displayed for the most recent survey year (2017-2018).

Source: Food Insecurity Experience Scale, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Taking three of the 8 FIES questions, this example takes a closer look at one household of five adults and five children living in rural Guinea. The survey respondent was a 37-year-old man who has completed elementary schooling or less and the household belongs to the richest 40-60 percent of the country’s population. This household’s probability of experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity is 63 percent.

Although the household did not go without eating for a whole day, they ate less than they should have, and they were worried that they would not have enough food to eat.

In Guinea, six in 10 households surveyed went without food for an entire day, an extreme form of deprivation. Three in every four households ate less in a day than they should, and roughly the same share was worried about not having enough to eat.

The probability that a household experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity is based on each household’s experiences (more opaque cells represent households with a higher probability of being food insecure). These probabilities can be used to calculate the extent and severity of food insecurity for the entire country.

Moderate form of food insecurity is analogous to households eating less in a day than they should, and severe food insecurity is analogous to going without food for an entire day. In Guinea, 74 percent of people are at least moderately food insecure, and 50 percent are severely food insecure.

The Philippines also suffers from high food insecurity; more than half of its people eat less food in a day than they should. But less than a quarter of the people went without food for a whole day, compared with 60 percent in Guinea. Although severe food insecurity is not as prevalent in the Philippines, milder forms of insecurity are widespread. And moderate food insecurity can still put people at risk for malnutrition and poor health.

Food insecurity is not limited to low- or lower-middle income economies. While the share of the population in Argentina, an upper-middle income country, going without food for a whole day is small (one in nine people) compared with Guinea and the Philippines, it is sizable for an upper-middle income economy. Almost half of people are “worried” about obtaining food. Although these people are not undernourished, they are at higher risk of becoming undernourished.

Experience of food insecurity differs by household characteristics

Disparities in food insecurity by income

Population experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity (%), by income group

0%20%40%60%80%100%SwitzerlandLiberia

Note: The data is displayed for the most recent survey year (2017-2018).

Source: Food Insecurity Experience Scale, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

The probability of experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity varies widely across countries -- from less than 2 percent in Switzerland to 85 percent in Liberia.

How is food insecurity related to household income?

It is expected that the richest 20 percent of country’s population experience a lower rate of food insecurity than the poorest 20 percent, but food insecurity can still be widespread among the rich. In Bostwana, more than half of the richest 20 percent of households experience food insecurity.

The difference in the food insecurity rate can also be very large between the rich and the poor. In Namibia, 40 percent of the richest 20 percent of households are food insecure compared with 82 percent of the poorest 20 percent of households--a gap of 42 percentage points.

Inequality in food insecurity exists not only within but also between countries. The share of people experiencing food insecurity is higher among the richest 20 percent of Liberia’s population (77 percent) than among the poorest 20 percent of Mozambique’s 71 percent.

How is food insecurity related to household size?

Households with children are more likely to be food insecure, and the relationship is stronger as the number of children increases. Generally, households with three or more children present are more likely to be food insecure than households with fewer or no children.

Food insecurity among children is concerning, especially when it leads to stunting. Stunting, particularly when it takes place in early childhood (before ages 2-3 years), has adverse behavioral impacts and is associated with fewer years of schooling in adulthood.

How COVID-19 has impacted food insecurity

Globally, undernourishment is expected to rise sharply due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The State of Food Security and Nutrition 2020 report estimates an additional 80-130 million people may become undernourished in 2020 depending on the extent of economic shocks across countries.

The World Bank is using the COVID-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey 2020 to track food insecurity in several countries. In Nigeria, about 2,000 households were interviewed by phone on their experience with food insecurity. The households were drawn from a sample households interviewed in an earlier survey from 2018/2019. The detailed information collected in the 2018/19 survey from the same households just over a year before the pandemic provides a rich set of information to track household experiences over time.

The share of Nigerian households experiencing the most severe forms of food insecurity increased sharply. In July-September 2018, about 14 percent of households reported going a whole day without eating. In June 2020, 35 percent did. In 2018, a third of households reported not experiencing food insecurity; during the COVID-19 pandemic a tenth of the households did.

In Nigeria, food insecurity increased sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic

July-Sep 2018June 2020Whole day without eatingHungry but did not eatRan out of foodAte less then shouldSkipped mealFew kinds of foodUnable to eat healthyWorried running outNoneWhole day without eatingHungry but did not eatRan out of foodAte less then shouldSkipped mealFew kinds of foodUnable to eat healthyWorried running outNone

Source: National Bureau of Statistics. Nigeria COVID-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey (COVID-19 NLPS) 2020. Dataset downloaded from Microdata Library, World Bank on September 30, 2020

The sharp rise in food insecurity in many countries is a result of shocks in both food supply and demand for food. Food supply is stressed due to disruptions in domestic food supply chains and other shocks affecting food production. Despite stable global food prices, numerous countries are experiencing varying rates of food price inflation due to measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, many people have lost their livelihoods, reducing their incomes and remittances leaving them unable to afford food.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, undernourishment and food insecurity were on the rise in many regions. Food insecurity is worsening with the pandemic. To reverse this trend, countries need to ensure continuity of essential services and provide social support to citizens, targeting poorer and vulnerable households.

Learn more about SDG 2: Zero hunger

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Prevalence of different types of malnutrition varies by region
On average, one-third of children under the age of five in low- and lower-middle income countries are stunted (SDG target 2.2). However, children who are overweight (SDG target 2.2) are largely present in upper-middle income (9 percent) or high-income countries (8 percent). Stunted children are mostly concentrated in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (both 33 percent), while those who are overweight are in the Middle East and North Africa (11 percent) and North America (9 percent).
Prevalence of stunting (height for age), wasting and severe wasting (weight for height), and overweight (% of children under 5), 2019
Prevalence of stunting (height for age), wasting and severe wasting (weight for height), and overweight (% of children under 5), 2019
Agriculture productivity in the form of yield per acre has slowed recently in Sub-Saharan Africa
Cereal yield (kg per hectare) measures how much agricultural output is produced per hectare of land for cereals (SDG target 2.3). The growth rate in cereal yields per acre has fallen from roughly 2 percent per year between 2000 and 2010 in Sub-Saharan Africa to roughly 0.5 percent per year from 2010-17. In other regions it has been growing by at least 1.5 percent since 2010.
Cereal yield (kg per hectare) average annual growth rate (%)
Cereal yield (kg per hectare) average annual growth rate (%)

Notes

  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Sustainable Development Goals, Indicator 2.1.1 Prevalence of undernourishment
  2. Ibid.
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), and World Health Organization (WHO). 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020: Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets. Rome: FAO.
  4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), and World Health Organization (WHO). 2019. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019: Safeguarding against Economic Slowdowns and Downturns. Rome: FAO.
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The Food Insecurity Experience Scale. 2020.
  6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), and World Health Organization (WHO). 2019. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019: Safeguarding against Economic Slowdowns and Downturns. Rome: FAO.
  7. Black, Robert E., et al. 2013. “Maternal and Child Undernutrition and Overweight in Low-Income and Middle-Income Countries.” The Lancet 382(9890): 427–51.
  8. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), and World Health Organization (WHO). 2020. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020: Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets. Rome: FAO.
  9. The 2018/19 survey was conducted for Wave 4 of the General Household Survey—Panel.
  10. National Bureau of Statistics. Nigeria COVID-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey (COVID-19 NLPS) 2020. Dataset downloaded from Microdata Library on October 15, 2020.
  11. World Bank. Food Security and COVID-19.