Read our 2021 annual report
During his address, Dr Ryan said a 'One Health' approach should be central to tackling hunger, adding: “there is an imperative now to act and we have the means to do it."
Hunger before COVID-19
This year’s Global Hunger index found ‘alarming’ hunger levels in Chad, Timor-Lest, Madagascar, Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
At the time of writing, the official statistics confirmed almost 690 million people were undernourished, up by 10 million people since 2018 and by nearly 60 million since 2014.
Yet covid-19 has made a bad situation even worse with World Food Programme warning that an additional 130 million people could be pushed into acute food crisis by the end of 2020.
“More people are going hungry,” Dr Ryan said. “Tens of millions have joined the ranks of the chronically undernourished over the past five years, and countries around the world continue to struggle with multiple forms of malnutrition. High costs and low affordability of healthy food also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously.
“The hungry are most numerous in Asia but expanding fastest in Africa.”
COVID-19 and systemic inequities
Dr Ryan explained that the global pandemic has not only decelerated progress towards SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), but it also risks undoing previous gains.
“COVID-19 has laid bare and amplified systemic inequities and vulnerabilities that go far beyond health,” Dr Ryan said.
“We are still in the process of evaluating the full impact of this ongoing global pandemic on our socio-economic system but early assessments estimate that another 83 million people, and possibly as many as 132 million, may go hungry in 2020 as a result of the economic recession triggered by COVID-19.
“The effects are likely to be the highest in low-income countries and middle-income countries, and countries in conflict and with the highest poverty levels and largest vulnerable populations will be most affected.”
The pandemic has worsened the food situation for those most in need, while also revealing the extent of the hunger emergency. A lack of access to health services, now exacerbated by this outbreak, has left billions of people, including many in rich countries, without reliable and affordable access to essential health services.
“The pandemic has highlighted and exploited the inequalities within and between countries and has served as a profound revealer. It is revealing that we have built fragile food systems that put healthy diets out of the reach of millions and that we have created essential health services, which many communities cannot access or afford,” Dr Ryan said.
Food deprivation has historically been instrumentalised as a weapon of war. But often access to food and essential health services have proven to be the stabilizing pillar for communities in conflict settings, a bridge and a prerequisite for peace. This is why access to nutritious, safe and affordable diets needs to be safeguarded and promoted as a cornerstone of the response to COVID-19. This will require investment in strengthening production and distribution of food that support healthy diets. Existing childhood feeding programmes need to be re-established and scaled up.
Building a One Health approach
The 2020 Global Health Index delves deep into the idea of a ‘One Health’ approach, which could help avert future health crises, restore a healthy planet and end hunger.
This approach is based on a recognition of the interconnections between humans, animals, plants and their shared environment, as well as the role of fair-trade relations.
It focusses on increasing sustainable practices in agriculture and improving the overall health of humans, animals and the environment – rethinking how we produce, process, distribute and consume our food, as well as reduce food loss and waste.
This approach should be at the centre of future solutions to tackle hunger and food production deficiencies, according to Dr Ryan.
“Our environment, our food systems are inextricably related to health. Globalisation by some measures has brought benefits but it has also created converging risks. We need coherent responses to those risks,” Dr Ryan said.
While the series of events that led to the emergence of COVID-19 are still unknown, its most likely zoonotic origin illustrates how our poorly regulated and unsustainable interactions with and use of wildlife for food can have devastating public health and socio-economic implications. What may be driven initially by food security and livelihood imperatives quickly highlights why we cannot ignore hunger and food insecurity and why we have to take a One Health Approach to address public health risks of zoonotic origin.
‘A crisis can bring out the best and the worst in us.’
In closing his keynote speech, Dr Ryan stated that the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a global health crisis but also a global food crisis, since both expose the same injustices, the same denial, the same fragilities in society. However, he also noted that " a crisis can bring out the best and worse in us".
“We must pivot towards sustainable growth, sustainable development, sustainable health systems and sustainable food systems – a sustainable planet for everyone. If we do not act, the hard-won gains we have made in recent years are at risk,” he said.
“Food, health and equity are intrinsically linked. They are not the bonus but they are the prerequisite of stability, for peace and for justice. We have to learn.”
Dr Ryan also urged the public to support humanitarian agencies who are “feeding the hungry”.
“There is work to be done and they are willing to get it done. But we cannot continue to sustain this by making a humanitarian argument. It should be enough. Human suffering should be enough to do something about this. But it’s not enough,” Dr Ryan said.
“There are hungry people in every country. This is not just a disease of the south. Hunger is everywhere. Poor nutrition is everywhere. This is a global issue. As is climate change. As is this pandemic.
“Sometimes I honestly feel ashamed when I think of the planet we are handing over to our children. We should be ashamed of the way our environment is deteriorating and when people are hungry. One in ten people is hungry on the planet. One in ten. Say it back to yourself. It is entirely unacceptable because it is not necessary. I hope this is a turning point for us all.”
Tribute to a colleague and friend
Throughout his address, Dr Ryan paid tribute to the late Dr. Peter Salama, who died unexpectedly on January 23, 2020, at 51 years of age. Dr Salama was an Australian humanitarian who worked for many aid agencies, including Concern Worldwide, during his illustrious career, which touched countless lives.
We can choose a different future. The future is not written. Pete always believed that. He inspired me, as he inspired so many of you. Let his legacy be what he dreamed of and spent his whole life doing - speaking out, bearing witness and serving those who have the least.
The 2020 GHI shows that based on their recent trajectories, 37 countries appear unlikely to achieve even low hunger status by 2030. In multiple countries, hunger is now at even higher rates than it was in 2012, driven by conflict, poverty, inequality, poor health, and climate change.