In recent decades, world hunger didn’t go away, but it did get less.
While about 19 percent of the world population was undernourished in 1990, that number had dropped to 11 percent by 2014, with the occasional hiccup, such as in the early 2000s partly due to the global insecurity surrounding the 9/11 attacks.
That improvement to the world’s diet, however, came to an end three years ago, according to a new U.N. report released Tuesday, and by 2017, 821 million people were undernourished (up from 750 million in 2013), reaching the levels of 10 years ago.
The culprit: The rising number of natural disasters likely brought on by climate change. “The report sends a clear message that climate variability and exposure to more complex, frequent and intense climate extremes are threatening to erode and even reverse the gains made in ending hunger and malnutrition,” the authors write. Conflicts in many developing nations have also contributed to deteriorating prospects for the fight against world hunger.
The trend is not as strongly pronounced when adjusted for population increase, but figures have risen from 10.6 percent in 2015 to 10.9 percent last year.
There are some geographical differences, with Africa and South America the most heavily affected. In much of Asia, Northern America and Europe, the situation has improved or remained stable.
With Asia now being a role model in terms of global nourishment rates, the next years could also intensify global disagreement over how to tackle hunger and poverty best. The global improvement in hunger rates over the last few decades came in no small part due to Asian nations’ homegrown successes at growing their economies.
The increase in undernourishment in Africa comes as China is challenging the international model of development aid by offering economic deals and loans for infrastructure projects rather than programs for capacity building increasingly favored by the West. While critics are accusing Beijing of exploiting resource-rich countries, supporters are pointing at promising growth numbers.
But the more urgent task of preventing large-scale famines or disasters is still mostly being carried out by Western-led development aid organizations.