More than a quarter billion people worldwide faced severe hunger last year amid a worsening food crisis that has pushed millions to the brink of starvation, according to an annual report led by the United Nations.
Some 258 million people in 58 different countries faced "acute food insecurity" last year, an increase of 65 million people from the year before, according to the 2023 edition of the annual Global Report on Food Crises. It also marked the fourth consecutive year that the number of people in urgent need of nutrition has risen.
Acute food insecurity refers to a severe and immediate lack of access to adequate food that threatens the lives or livelihoods of people. While less severe than famine and starvation, it is characterized by a combination of factors such as sudden food supply disruptions, limited availability, high prices, or reduced access to food due to natural disasters, conflicts, or other emergencies.
The report cited the war in Ukraine as one of the key driving factors behind the global rise in food prices, as well as lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions and the impact of climate change on food production.
"We are moving in the wrong direction," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. "Conflicts and mass displacement continue to drive global hunger. Rising poverty, deepening inequalities, rampant underdevelopment, the climate crisis and natural disasters also contribute to food insecurity."
While many of the countries that have requested external food assistance are failed or failing states located in Africa, the need stretches globally to countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Bangladesh and North Korea, among several others. Conflict was the main cause of food insecurity in 19 countries. But weather and climate catastrophes were the primary driver in 12 other countries, including Pakistan, where devastating floods last year destroyed crops and left millions of people without access to food.
"As always, it is the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of this failure," Guterres added. "Facing soaring food prices that were aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and, despite some declines, are still above 2019 levels due to the war in Ukraine."
Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which is a major producer of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, led to steep price hikes last year that impacted tens of millions of people. While prices have mostly stabilized to levels seen before the war, the impacts are still ongoing due to supply chain issues and disruptions to exports.
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Rein Paulson is the director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Office of Emergencies and Resilience. He said the report should serve as a wake-up call to world leaders, governments and humanitarian organizations about the need for urgent action.
"There are a series of countries included in this report who are import-dependent, low-income countries," Paulson said of the report. "Obviously as prices have changed [and] prices have increased, those countries have been adversely affected."
He added that time-sensitive agricultural interventions have proven to be the most cost effective way to address acute food insecurity. These methods include increasing food production, improving access to nutritious food, and enhancing the resilience of agricultural systems — through things like livestock support and farmer training. However, Paulson acknowledged there is an issue in how monetary aid is being spent in some places.
"The challenge that we have is the disequilibrium, the mismatch that exists between the amount of money that's given, what that funding is spent on, and the types of interventions that are required to make a change," he said. "Globally we know only 4% of all of the funding that goes to food security interventions and food crisis contacts ... only 4% goes to time-sensitive agricultural interventions. That's something that needs to change if we really want to move the needle."
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