Hunger myths and facts: Separating the wheat from the chaff
Not everything you hear about global hunger is true. Here, we correct a few of the most persistent hunger myths, and offer up a few facts to know in 2022.
Read our 2021 annual report
A humanitarian paradox: Hunger is a pretty simple thing to understand. It’s a sensation we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives. But it’s also an incredibly complex concept.
You may know that one out of every nine people are living at some level of food insecurity. But what is food insecurity? Is that the same as malnutrition? When is a famine a famine? How are we doing in the fight against world hunger?
Here, we cover both numbers and the meaning behind them. Published annually by Concern and Welthungerhilfe, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) gives us both a snapshot of current world hunger facts and figures, as well as a historical look on how progress has (and hasn’t) been made. Here’s what you need to know in 2022.
*Data sources: The 2022 Global Hunger Index (published by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe), the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and the World Food Programme
As Concern and Welthungerhilfe write in the 2022 Global Hunger Index, global progress against hunger has stagnated in recent years. The 2022 GHI score for the world is considered moderate. But at 18.2, it shows only a slight decline from the 2014 score of 19.1.
In fact, one indicator that we use in the GHI — the prevalence of undernourishment — is increasing. As many as 828 million people were undernourished in 2021. This figure represents a loss of more than a decade of progress against hunger. Without a major shift, neither the world as a whole nor 46 countries in particular will reach Zero Hunger — or even low hunger — by 2030.
The 2022 GHI categorises hunger levels as “Alarming” in five countries: the Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, and Yemen. We don’t have sufficient data for several countries to rank them in this year’s index, however we can also assume that hunger is at a similar level in Burundi, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria.
While we’ve made progress towards ending hunger in the last decade, we’ve also seen hunger levels increase in 20 countries across multiple regions. Even in regions and countries that perform well overall on the GHI, we can see hotspots of food and nutrition insecurity. There are, however, also signs of progress: Since 2000, 32 countries have seen their GHI scores decline by 50% or more, including at least one country from nearly every world region.
Right now, we’re facing a triple whammy of conflict, climate change, and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have worsened global hunger levels without an end in sight.
The conflict in Ukraine has a global effect on hunger. The situation has further increased global food, fuel, and fertiliser prices. It has also cut off import and export access to many countries that rely on Ukraine and Russia for grain imports — including countries like Somalia and Ethiopia, which are facing the catastrophic impacts of several failed rainy seasons. The number of acutely hungry people in the world increased by 25% in just three months, which was largely attributed to this particular crisis. The situation as we enter 2023 is expected to be even worse.
These crises come on top of other key underlying causes of hunger, including poverty, inequality, inadequate governance, poor infrastructure, and low agricultural productivity.
At both a global and local level, current food systems are not up to the task of addressing these challenges and ending hunger. With so many crises spiralling, we face a dual challenge. We must scale up resources to respond to current emergencies — especially those that become protracted.
At the same time, however, we must also transform food systems so that they are more equitable, inclusive, sustainable, and resilient. This is critical to averting future crises. We need to recognise, respect, and protect the basic human right that everyone has to food. Governments have to put inclusive governance and accountability at the centre of their efforts to address hunger. At all levels, governments, NGOs, and other individuals and organisations working to fight hunger need to harness local voices and capacities, supporting strong local leadership, awareness, and engagement.
World hunger will not be solved by multinational organisations creating dependencies in vulnerable communities. We can only reach Zero Hunger when independence is built within those communities through the right resources and policies. NGOs like Concern are there to provide the links to those resources and support systems and, eventually, to work ourselves out of a job.
There are a lot of terms we use when we talk about world hunger. Here are a few key concepts with links to learn more.
There are many ways of measuring hunger. But a complex issue requires more than one figure. In compiling the Global Hunger Index every year, we look at four key indicators:
Combined, this set of indicators gives us a more three-dimensional sense of hunger. They reflect calorie deficiencies, as well as poor nutrition. They reflect adult as well as child populations — children being especially important here as they are more vulnerable to the effects of a lack of dietary energy, protein, and micronutrients.
According to the FAO, food security exists when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This, along with nutritional outcomes, is what we work towards at Concern, and breaks down into four areas of focus:
1. Food availability
A sufficient amount of quality food is available to communities (including food aid).
2. Food access
People are able to access the amount of food they’re entitled to in order to maintain a nutritious diet for themselves and their families.
3. Food utilisation
People then use that food, along with clean water, sanitation, and healthcare opportunities, to maintain a healthy lifestyle and meet all of their nutritional needs. This, as the FAO points out, starts to layer in the intersectional nature of food security with non-food elements like water access and strong health systems.
4. Food stability
People can count on having access to an adequate amount of food at all times, even in the case of sudden shocks (like a pandemic) or cyclical events (such as hungry seasons — more on that below).
What is a famine? “Famine” is a word that is often used (and misused) for emotional or metaphoric effect to describe food crises of varying size and scope. In our work, however, there are clear-set guidelines around what constitutes a famine. A famine is declared when:
While these criteria were established by the United Nations, generally it’s up to individual governments to declare (and, eventually, announce the end of) a famine. This can be especially difficult in many of the countries where food security is most threatened: Generally, famines occur in areas where there is a lack of infrastructure, which can make these data points hard to know for certain.
Learn more about what (and when) is a famine in our explainer.
Around the same time that some defining contours were placed around “famine,” the Food and Agriculture Organisation published the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC breaks down five phases of food security:
Phase 1. Generally Food Secure communities usually have a reliable source of food with low-to-moderate risks for crisis-level food insecurity (Phases 3, 4, and 5)
Phase 2. Moderately Food Insecure communities have a borderline reliable source of food, and have a recurring high risk for food insecurity (due to a combination of vulnerability to risk and possible hazards like a natural disaster or conflict).
Phase 3. Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis situations happen when a community is highly stressed due to any number of causes, which result in a critical lack of food access that results in higher-than-normal levels of malnutrition and loss of livelihoods. If these circumstances continue, the crisis will become an emergency or famine.
Phase 4. Humanitarian Emergency is declared when there is a severe lack of food access with higher than average levels of mortality, malnutrition, and loss of livelihoods that the FAO would term “irreversible.”
Phase 5. Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe. This is also a situation that the FAO links to forced migration and social upheaval.
Yes. But these terms are just one way of looking at global hunger. While global hunger levels have overall gone down since 1980, 1 in 9 people still move between Phases 3, 4, and 5 of food security. This gives us a way of understanding the most severe emergencies and focusing global health efforts accordingly.
At the same time, we realise that there are real people on the other side of these efforts. This is why we tailor our approaches to food insecurity to both the level of insecurity and the unique circumstances of the communities we serve, working with local leaders and incorporating indigenous knowledge to ensure that solutions are appropriate and sustainable. It’s helpful to think of the terms above as diagnoses: They don’t define a person, just their current circumstances.
In addition to “how much,” the question of “when” is also important in addressing global hunger. Worldwide, 65% of working adults living in poverty earn their living — and feed their families — through agriculture. In countries like Malawi, this proportion can exceed 80%.
One of the most consistent forms of food insecurity is known as the hunger season (or sometimes hungry season). This is a time of year between planting and harvest when a family’s food supplies will run out, and it can last for months. Hungry seasons can be longer or more severe in cases like climate change or natural disaster.
Hunger is when we go without food. Malnutrition is what happens when we go without food for a certain amount of time, or in certain critical life stages (like infancy).
Malnutrition sometimes centres around deficiency of one specific nutrient or a few key nutrients (these are usually referred to as micronutrient deficiencies). But there are three main types of malnutrition that result from the deficiency of all nutrients:
Concern’s current nutrition strategy looks at some of the intersectionalities of hunger and designs programmes that respond to those intersections. There are four areas that, when addressed with nutrition in mind, can have major impact:
Ensuring that communities have access to clean water and hygiene services not only means that they can keep their crops and livestock well-maintained, but also that they will be less susceptible to waterborne illnesses that may prevent them from absorbing those nutrients.
Ensuring that children under 5 — and especially those under 2 — have the right nutrients and calories they need to develop can dramatically improve their chances of living a more fulfilling and creative life. As nutrients are also passed onto children while they are in the womb and breastfeeding, ensuring that pregnant and lactating women have the right nutrients is also important.
We’ve mentioned this earlier, but agriculture plays a key role in ending global hunger, especially in countries where it makes up a large portion of livelihoods. This means not only increasing the quantity of harvests, but also the quality: We work with farmers to find more nutrient-dense crops that will thrive with their climates and other conditions.
For some of the people we work with, their work is in farming, but they either receive a low return on their investment — or, in some cases, no return. Programmes like Graduation and ReGRADE have been established specifically to help with the business side of agriculture in many of the communities we serve, linking food security to financial empowerment. With Graduation programmes, many participating families receive cash transfers to supplement their income as they build new skills. For other families who may experience the sudden shock of a natural disaster, cash transfers help ensure that these temporary losses don’t carry permanent ramifications.