World hunger
Eleven per cent of the global population were undernourished in 2016.

ROME — Climate-related shocks disastrous to agriculture and conflict have exacerbated food insecurity and malnutrition problems worldwide. In 2016, these and other factors led to a sharp increase in the number of chronically undernourished people in the world, according to the recently released "State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World" report, an annual publication of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (F.A.O). Coming on the heels of a decade-long decline in the number of hungry people, there was concern this may signal a reversal of the recent trend.

In 2016, 815 million people, or 11% of the global population, were chronically undernourished. That’s up from 777 million in 2015, but still down from about 900 million in 2000, according to the report. Most hungry people lived in Asia (520 million), Africa (243 million) and Latin America (42 million).

Most undernourished people (489 million) live in regions struggling with conflict, violence and governance fragility. This is no coincidence, the F.A.O. said, which noted all 19 countries classified as experiencing a prolonged food crisis also are experiencing conflict and violence. Hunger and undernutrition were consistently and significantly the worst in areas where there have been lengthy conflicts and weak institutional capacity combined with destructive climate-related shocks, such as drought and flooding.

Food security took a steep dive in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeastern Asia and Western Asia. Famine hit parts of South Sudan in 2017, and the country is at high risk for reoccurrence. Three other nations at high risk of famine — Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen — are plagued by conflict.

World hunger
Food security took a steep dive in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeastern Asia and Western Asia.

The frequency of wars had been decreasing in recent decades to an all-time low in 2005. Since then, the number of violent conflicts has risen in number and complexity, and there has been a surge in conflict-related deaths. Civil wars and internal conflicts recently surpassed the number of conflicts between states. But the effects of internal conflicts cannot be contained, most clearly witnessed in the food insecurity emerging in countries that have become hosts to refugees fleeing from their home countries.

The troubling turn in undernourishment hasn’t resulted in a downturn in all measures of malnutrition, at least not yet, according to the report. The prevalence of child stunting — children too short for their age — continued to fall, though at a slower rate. Childhood wasting — being too thin for one’s height — affected 52 million children in 2016, about 7.7% of children under five worldwide. About 41 million children (about 6%) under five were considered overweight in 2016, the F.A.O. said. 

Two other malnutrition factors were stressed in the report. Adult obesity, a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers, more than doubled from 1980 to 2014 globally. The latter year found 600 million adults (13% of the world’s population) were obese. And anemia, an indicator of both poor nutrition and poor health, affected 33% of the world’s reproductive-age women.

Interventions to improve the state of worldwide food security may help deter conflict, the report suggested. Increasing food price stability and efforts to revitalize agriculture and food markets might eliminate motives for joining armed groups or engaging in illegal activities. The report detailed several food security interventions — price stabilization measures to shield people from price shocks and driving recovery through agriculture to renew shattered homes and communities — and suggested agricultural and livelihood strategies for climate change adaptation should be integral to any plan to prevent conflict.

The annual report is produced jointly by the F.A.O., along with the International Fund for Agriculture Development and the World Food Program. Beginning this year, the report monitored progress in all forms of malnutrition in addition to food security. Two partners have joined the F.A.O., IFAD and the W.F.P. to assist with the focus on malnutrition: the United Nations Children’s Fund and World Health.