When it comes to ending hunger, the world is going in the wrong direction, according to a report released Wednesday by the United Nations that called for “repurposing” agricultural subsidies toward the development of nutritious foods.

Progress on ending hunger and nutrition insecurity has slowed to the point where the number of people affected by hunger is rising, not decreasing, said the report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

“There is a real danger these numbers will climb even higher in the months ahead," said David Beasley, executive director of the UN's World Food Programme. "The global price spikes in food, fuel and fertilizers that we are seeing as a result of the crisis in Ukraine threaten to push countries around the world into famine. The result will be global destabilization, starvation, and mass migration on an unprecedented scale. We have to act today to avert this looming catastrophe.”

According to the report, the growth in global hunger began during the COVID-19 pandemic but has only grown since then.

“After remaining relatively unchanged since 2015, the proportion of people affected by hunger jumped in 2020 and continued to rise in 2021, to 9.8% of the world population. This compares with 8% percent in 2019 and 9.3% in 2020,” the UN said in a news release accompanying the report.

Those numbers translate into as many as 828 million people in 2021, a jump of about 46 million since 2020 and 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said, making it highly unlikely the world will achieve a UN goal of achieving zero hunger by 2030. 

“This report repeatedly highlights the intensification of these major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition: conflict, climate extremes and economic shocks, combined with growing inequalities,” the heads of five UN agencies wrote in the foreword to the report. “The issue at stake is not whether adversities will continue to occur or not, but how we must take bolder action to build resilience against future shocks.”

Another figure: “Around 2.3 billion people in the world (29.3%) were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021 — 350 million more compared to before the outbreak of the COVID‑19 pandemic,” the press release said. “Nearly 924 million people (11.7% of the global population) faced food insecurity at severe levels, an increase of 207 million in two years.”

In addition, nearly 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020, up 112 million from 2019, which reflects “the effects of inflation in consumer food prices stemming from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures put in place to contain it,” the news release said.

“The report shows us that the world is stagnant and even regressing in our efforts” towards achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals of ensuring access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year, and eradicating all forms of malnutrition, said Collen Vixen Kelapile, president of the UN Economic and Social Council, at an event to launch the report. “Governments can and must achieve more with the same public resources.”

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Instead, the report projects that nearly 670 million people, or 8% of the world population “will still be facing hunger in 2030 — even if a global economic recovery is taken into consideration,” the news release said. “This is a similar number to 2015, when the goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by the end of this decade was launched under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development."

The report called on nations to “repurpose” their ag subsidies. 

Recent studies that rely on modeling “find that repurposing domestic agricultural subsidies — particularly those that are coupled to production — to pursue better nutrition, health and environmental outcomes, can be beneficial to transitions towards healthy diets that include sustainability considerations,” the report says.

“For example, positive gains could be made in terms of human health through increased consumption of nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses,” the report says. “Repurposing half or all subsidies to nutritious foods is found to lead to hundreds of thousands of fewer diet-related deaths and reductions in [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

But the report also notes that “repurposing may not be feasible for some countries, especially for [low-income countries] but also for some [low- and middle-income countries] that are barely spending on food and agriculture while still undergoing agricultural transformation.”

The report was jointly published by the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization.

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