“Grim” Findings Show Food Insecurity is Getting Worse

Global food insecurity worsened dramatically last year and will likely continue to do so, according to a coalition of governments and nonprofits formed five years ago to track emergent and ongoing food crises. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called their new report “grim reading” and urged governments and food security advocates everywhere to mobilize and innovate to find ways “to end this vicious cycle.”

The Global Network Against Food Crises, an alliance of 16 agencies and organizations formed at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, has just issued its 2021 Global Report on Food Crises (https://www.wfp.org/publications/global-report-food-crises-2021). Their new overview shows how tens of millions of people found themselves forced into a state of “acute food insecurity” last year, exacerbating what was already a terrible situation. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made conditions increasingly dire, but the pandemic is not the root cause of this rise in hunger. In a forward, Guterres says that armed conflict continues to be the number one driver of food insecurity.

The new report says the number of people threatened by food crises rose to a five-year high last year, and it predicts little relief moving into the rest of 2021. “Around 155 million people were in crisis or worse” in 2020, the report said, meaning at “Phase 3 or above” according to a food insecurity barometer developed by humanitarian agencies. The report said 133,000 people were considered to be in a state of “catastrophe” last year, or Phase 5, the highest level on the classification system indicating a state of famine. The coalition tracked desperate conditions in 55 countries, with 12 countries added to the list last year, and warns that rising food insecurity will carry into this year so long as conflicts continue to rage. “Out of the 47 million children suffering from wasting globally, 15.8 million were in these 55 food crises,” the coalition said. “Out of 144 million children affected by stunting globally, 75.2 million were in the 55 food crises.”

Eight countries stand out in the report’s findings: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, Honduras, Yemen, and Burkina Faso. They were identified as the nations where internal strife was leading to the most food insecurity, while in some cases a lack of food helped fuel the very conflicts that resulted in Phase 3 or worse conditions. But those countries are hardly the only ones concerning food security advocates. Central African Republic, Mozambique, and South Sudan are among the other nations ranking highest in concern. The report says Afghanistan, DRC, and Yemen experienced the worst food emergencies last year.

Burkina Faso stands out for the speed with which the situation there has unraveled. A coup in the capital and violence spilling over from Mali and Niger left at least 11,400 people “partially or completely cut off from humanitarian assistance” last year, the report warns. On May 12, Reliefweb issued an “Atrocity Alert” warning that the crisis that emerged in Burkina Faso in 2018 is only getting worse, noting recent armed attacks that in the past weeks took the lives of dozens of civilians. “Burkina Faso is now home to one of the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian crises, with more than 1.14 million people forcibly displaced in just over two years,” the alert warns.

Extreme weather also harmed food security in at least 15 countries in 2020 as flooding killed livestock and damaged crops. But the report emphasizes how conflict too often plays a leading role in exacerbating malnutrition, with women and children hit hardest. For example, in Yemen over 46% of children under the age of 5 suffered from stunting last year, the authors estimate. Armed violence pushes families to flee to refugee camps, forcing them to abandon farms or businesses and cutting them off from food and income. “Conflict drove internal and cross-border displacement, deprived people of their livelihoods, disrupted markets, trade, and crop production, prevented herders from accessing their pasturelands, and contributed to high food prices,” it notes. The authors expect little relief in 2021. “High levels of acute food insecurity will persist in countries with protracted conflicts by limiting access to livelihoods and agricultural fields, uprooting people from their homes, and increasing displaced populations’ reliance on humanitarian aid for their basic needs.”

There are no easy solutions. The Global Network Against Food Crises fears that over 142 million people will face Phase 3 food crises or worse this year. 155,000 could be threatened with famine. “Food crises are becoming increasingly protracted and the ability to recover from new adverse events is becoming more difficult,” the report says. Whatever the solutions may be, Guterres said, they must be holistic. “Conflict and hunger are mutually reinforcing,” he noted. “We need to tackle hunger and conflict together to solve either.”  Economists and political scientists have also found a causal relationship from hunger to conflict.

We’re committed to supporting innovations to head off hunger before it arises. Guterres believes strongly that greater food security reduces the risk of violence. We wholeheartedly agree.

Photo credit: An NGO worker inspects a fallow field in Burkina Faso near the border with Niger (EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Creative Commons).

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