Editor’s Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

After more than fifteen years of heartening declines, global food insecurity and malnutrition are again on the rise. According to the most recent data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 760 million people had insufficient food resources to meet their daily needs in 2021—which means 150 million more hungry people in the world than in 2019.

Though it is difficult to envision scale of need, researchers and policymakers must focus on understanding who is hungry and why, and to anticipate where crises will occur so that aid can arrive promptly to alleviate suffering. Hunger is also a foundational welfare indicator, basic to understanding the functioning and resilience of households, communities, and countries. 

At the household level, for example, hunger signifies a given household is too poor and likely too credit-constrained to meet other financial obligations beyond purchasing food. At the national level, the scale and magnitude of hunger reveals the degree to which a country is provisioning or failing its own citizens. Since the beginnings of human society, an implicit contract between the rulers and the ruled, between centers of power and the general populace is that most people will have enough to eat. Conversely, a nation characterized by significant sustained hunger is a nation with potentially fatal structural weaknesses.  

The COVID pandemic, regional climate shocks, and commodity trade disruptions caused by Russia’s attack on Ukraine have all intensified the stress on global food systems, and impacts on already-vulnerable regions—including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen—have been severe. The number of individuals in acute crisis is growing, but the number of people living in sustained, persistent deprivation is growing as well. 

Analysts and policymakers often distinguish between two primary types of food insecurity. Acute food insecurity is associated with short-term disruptions (less than six months) in the market availability of food or household access to it. Driven by adverse weather, by war, or by short-term civil unrest, this is the kind of hunger that makes headlines in the West. The World Food Programme’s annual Global Report on Food Crises (GFRC) in 2022, 193 million people in 53 countries had food insecurity classified as crisis, emergency, or catastrophe. Although these consumption shortfalls are short-term, they can have long-term consequences. When households deplete asset stocks to meet needs in a given season, there can be serious consequences for future production and income, for child development, for regional economic growth and political stability.

In contrast to acute food insecurity, chronic food insecurity is defined by longer-term deprivation, people who in their day-to-day lives are unable to meet their own food needs or those of their families, often because of low household incomes. Chronic food insecurity rarely makes it to the front page, because long-term deprivation is so often a consequence of structural failure, and most of the global food insecurity documented by the FAO or in similar reports is endemic in this way. In 41 countries evaluated by the GFRC, 236 million households are classified as chronically hungry. The World Food Programme notes that at least 40 percent of the analyzed population in Burundi, the DRC, Guatemala, Madagascar, and Mozambique lives in chronically stressed circumstances. Other hotspots of chronic hunger have been documented in Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Mali, Guinea, and Tanzania.

The acutely hungry population is growing; the number of chronically hungry people is growing too, and these two populations can obviously merge. The chronically hungry are vulnerable to crises, with little in the way of assets or other wealth to protect them from the effects of shocks. 

Don’t miss a beat! It’s easy to sign up for a FREE month of Agri-Pulse news! For the latest on what’s happening in Washington, D.C. and around the country in agriculture, just click here.

We often hear that the world does have sufficient food resources to provision everyone and that the challenges to doing it involve distribution and allocation. But food insecurity is also fundamentally tied to place and to poverty, with reinforcing relationships among low agricultural productivity, low rural incomes, and hunger. Because so many of the world’s poor are farmers, local production shortfalls and low local agricultural productivity translate directly into hunger. Low productivity means that farm households have insufficient incomes to buy the food they need, even if global surpluses could be efficiently redeployed to reach them. Improving global food security will require raising agricultural production closer to sites of crises, closer to households in areas where the hungry reside. 

Sustained investments and attention to agricultural productivity in low-income countries is essential to addressing the current crisis and preparing for crises to come. New seeds, strengthened extension services, technology adoption—these are all straightforward ways to combat hunger and social instability in low-income countries. 

Though the global food system is an extraordinary thing, provisioning billions, its limitations are stubborn and dangerous. Hunger tells us about the functioning of households and nations. At the international level, the scale and growth of hunger tells us something too: the global food system is failing more individuals than ever before. 

Hope C. Michelson, Ph.D., is a nonresident fellow on global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She's currently an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Michelson earned her Ph.D. in Applied Economics at Cornell and completed a post-doctoral fellowship with the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University. Her research is at the intersection of development and agriculture. She focuses on small farmers in low-income countries and on the relationships between agriculture, natural resources, markets, and household outcomes. She has a special interest in household poverty dynamics and food security at multiple spatial scales.

For more ag news, visit Agri-Pulse.com.