World Making Progress Against Hunger, Report Finds, but Large Pockets of Undernourished Persist

Undernourishment has declined in most countries, but food access is still a problem.
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No one on the planet should go hungry.

That's because the world's farmers grow 700 more calories per person than the World Food Programme's daily recommended 2,100 calories—an abundance of plants and animals that surpasses the daily needs of the world's 7.2 billion people.

In most places, the challenge is access. Global access to food is improving overall, according to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released Tuesday, yet challenges in the developing world—from poor infrastructure and political instability to erratic weather and long-term changes in climate—are keeping 805 million people from having enough to eat.

"The problem is getting smaller," says Josef Schmidhuber, an economist with the FAO who compiled part of the report, an annual measure of undernourishment around the world. "It's good news, but we have always had a more ambitious target."

Since 1990, the proportion of people without access to enough quality food has dropped from one in five to nearly one in ten. Despite steep population growth worldwide during that period, that amounts to 210 million fewer undernourished people alive today.

Still, large concentrations of undernourished people remain. The continent with the highest rate of undernourishment is Africa, where one in five people have too little access to nutritious food. In the Central African Republic, where the new report says that 38 percent of the population is undernourished, an ongoing civil war has led to widespread displacement. This in turn has led to disruptions in the food supply and distribution.

In Zambia (which is 48 percent undernourished), a leading culprit is infrastructure, according to the WFP. Less than 20 percent of the population has access to a durable road.

Asia, meanwhile, has the highest total number of undernourished people, led by India with 191 million. That number, however, has declined by more than 20 million since 1990, even while the country's population has increased 383 million to 1.25 billion.

Researchers from the FAO and the WFP note that parts of Africa and Asia are plagued by low income, poor agricultural development, and few social safety nets. In some countries, such as North Korea, the political climate limits trade and food aid.

Tuesday's report focuses on food insecurity, and FAO officials distinguish between hunger and undernourishment.

Hunger is marked by stomach pangs and general fatigue. Undernourishment, which is a chronic physical condition, can lead someone to be underweight for his or her age, stunted in growth, and deficient in vitamins and minerals. Undernourishment often affects large communities and even entire countries where enough quality food isn't available.

The western hemisphere has almost uniformly decreased undernourishment, according to the new report. Yet the highest rate in the world—52 percent—belongs to Haiti. According to the WFP, an earthquake in 2010, followed by several hurricanes in 2012 and a drought in 2014, have limited Haiti's capacity to get enough food to its people.

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A woman sits with a pot of dried mud cookies—a local dish made of dirt, salt, and vegetable shortening—in Haiti, which has the highest measured rate of undernourished people of all countries surveyed.


"In Haiti, as in many other parts of the world, food available on the market is often not sufficiently varied to meet people's dietary needs," says Grace Tillyard, a WFP officer in Haiti. "Economic and physical boundaries mean that people cannot afford or cannot physically access enough different types of food, and this can severely impact their health over time."

Because of the complexities of collecting data, not every country in the world is represented in the FAO report. In some of the places most in need—Burundi, for example, which topped the list in the FAO's 2013 compilation—development agencies often find it hard to get food in and data out. This can be a result of civil unrest, natural disasters, or populations living in hard-to-reach rural areas.

Even though the world has made progress overall, efforts to eliminate world undernourishment can come with diminishing returns. The more progress is made, the more challenging the remaining work becomes. It's generally easier to help a country with farming innovations like new seeds and fertilizers. Yet distributing the remaining food involves other industries and often the trade policies of foreign governments.

"Once you bring every region up to production, future advances really need to come from access," says FAO's Schmidhuber. "And access is more challenging to solve."

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