Global hunger toll soars by 150 million as Covid and Ukraine war make their mark

The number of people going hungry in the world has risen by 150 million since the start of the Covid pandemic, the UN has said, warning that the food crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine risks pushing the worst-hit countries into famine.

Globally, the number suffering from chronic undernourishment rose to as many as 828 million last year, a rise of about 46 million on the previous year, and three times that increase if measured since the world shut down due to Covid, a report has found.

With the price of fuel, food staples and fertiliser soaring since the invasion of Ukraine, however, that total is expected to rise even further in the next year – a scenario that could see some of the world’s poorest fall into famine, the most extreme form of food deprivation.

“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 (WFP). “The global price spikes in food, fuel and fertilisers as a result of the crisis in Ukraine threaten to push countries around the world into famine.

“The result will be global destabilisation, starvation and mass migration on an unprecedented scale,” he warned. “We have to act today to avert this looming catastrophe.”

Due to the uncertainty caused by the lingering impact of Covid shutdowns, the report, released on Wednesday, is unable to give a precise figure for the number of people going hungry in 2021, instead estimating that the total was somewhere between 702 million and 828 million. If the latter, that would equate to about 10.5% of the world population.

An estimated 45 million children under five were suffering from wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition, which increases children’s risk of death by up to 12 times, the report said. About 149 million children under five had stunted growth and development due to a chronic lack of essential nutrients.

Gilbert Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said that, according to projections, chronic undernourishment would affect nearly 670 million people in 2030 – a similar figure to that of 2015, when the UN vowed to eradicate hunger by 2030 as part of the sustainable development goals.

“[It] means all the effort in those 15 years will have been wiped out by the different crises that the world is going through,” he told the Guardian.

Houngbo, a former prime minister of Togo, agreed there was a distinct risk of famine in some countries, but added: “I want to believe there’s still time for us to avoid arriving there.”

The one “silver lining” of the Ukraine crisis, he added, was that the world had been forced to pay attention to vulnerabilities in the global food system.

Urging the international community to “seize the moment” and make “a decisive shift” in agricultural policy, he said: “Investment in resilience is the real answer. If famine were to happen, food distribution might be unavoidable.

“But for God’s sake, food aid is not the answer,” he added. “And today, if we invest in the resilience of the local producers, we can avoid that famine.”

The tool used by the UN and wider international community to measure food insecurity – the integrated food security phase classification (IPC) defines famine as an extreme deprivation of food. “Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical levels of acute malnutrition are or will likely be evident,” it says.

The last famine to be officially declared was in some areas of South Sudan in 2017. Before that, a famine in Somalia is estimated to have killed nearly 260,000 people between 2010 and 2012.

Both countries continue to suffer acute food insecurity, and a WFP spokesman warned last month that only a massive humanitarian effort could prevent parts of Somalia from returning to famine in coming months.

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