A UN report published last week received little media coverage in Ireland and was overshadowed by the World Health Organisation’s update on the global escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet the level of suffering and hardship outlined in the 'State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World' report for 2019 is every bit as shocking and in need of public attention and action.
Hunger? Still? Yes, it is a scandal that so many people are still hungry in the 21st century. The latest statistics and calculations show we are drifting away from the target of Zero Hunger by 2030, as stated in the Sustainable Development Goals.
The report found that 690m people last year — almost one in 10 of the world’s population (8.9%)
— were undernourished. The numbers who are hungry are rising, with 60m more since 2014
— an average of 12m extra per annum.
If the current trends continue unchecked, the numbers living in hunger will reach 830m by 2030 by when we pledged to eliminate hunger.
Worringly, those figures do not include the impact which the Covid-19 pandemic is having, and is likely to have, on the world’s poorest people.
Depending on the scale of the economic fallout from the pandemic, the report forecasts that between 83m and 132m more could be undernourished this year.
Currently two billion people — more than a quarter of the world’s population
— experienced hunger last year or did not have access to nutritious food. This poses an even greater problem for young children. More than 144m children aged under-five were chronically malnourished or stunted last year.
Stunting, measured by low height for age, is caused by long-term insufficient nutrition intake and infrequent infections. It usually occurs before the age of two and in most cases is irreversible.
Chronic hunger is harder to tackle but we need to do it through changing diets, reducing the power of huge food multinationals to determine what people eat, either by their hold over the wholesale and retail sector or by the power of their advertising on young people and children.
The Covid pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in the food system and in particular long value chains (many different actors between farmers in some countries and consumers in other countries) and the need to look at sustainable, green economies, looking at stronger localisation of parts of the food system.
Our food system determines our diets and our diets determine our health.
The Irish health system has long suffered the knock-on effects of unhealthy diets and lifestyles. We are malnourished but on the other side of the equation, being overweight and obese, leading to diabetes, heart disease and other non-communicable diseases.
Of more significant worry to Concern and other humanitarian agencies is that a further 47m children under-five suffer from wasting, normally measured by low weight for height, as a result of acute food shortages.
Undernutrition is the underlying cause of up to half of all deaths in children under five. Severe wasting increases a child’s risk of death up to 12-fold.
When we see images of extremely thin or emaciated children or adults dying of hunger, it is from severe acute wasting. These are the worst cases of malnutrition or hunger.
When I think of the phrase “leave no one behind”, it is this image of a devastated mother herself exhausted and under-nourished, holding on to her precious, emaciated child, with that look of helplessness, at bewilderment that the world could be so cruel and stacked against her, in her eyes, pleading for help to keep her child alive.
For many parents, in some of the world’s toughest places, losing a child to starvation happens more than once. Each time it happens, it is all the more devastating.
While all forms of malnutrition are to be abhorred and addressed, it is this severest form of hunger that stirs us all deeply and demands action.
We know how to treat these children. Last year, Concern’s health and nutrition programmes reached over 2.9m adults and children in some of the poorest parts of the world. But, globally, treatment is only reaching around 20% of wasted children.
Concern works relentlessly with partners, from national governments and local authorities, to Irish Aid and the EU, to find better ways of tackling malnutrition. Concern is planning a technical meeting of global experts in Ireland early next year to explore how we can significantly increase this dismal rate of coverage.
Alarmingly, some nutrition experts are predicting that the numbers of children suffering wasting could rise by 14% as a result of the pandemic.
We need to make sure that the measures and responses we take to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus, do not create worse impacts and take more lives in the medium or longer term.
Hunger should be everyone’s problem — we should all be concerned about rising hunger levels, mirrored by rising levels of inequality.
As budgets are recalculated and renegotiated later this year, both in the light of the cost of the Covid-19 lockdowns and other public health measures as well as financial planning of the consequent recessions around the world, we need to factor in the needs of those people most at risk of dying from hunger and allocate sufficient resources to keep momentum towards eliminating hunger from the world.