There’s a positive current in the food systems space.  Over the last several months we have seen numerous sessions and reports exploring critical themes such as hunger, nutrition, food loss and waste, and climate change – all of which are contributing important ideas and momentum for three major upcoming conferences: the UN Food Systems Summit, COP26, and the Nutrition for Growth Summit.   

And July saw the release of a pivotal report from UN FAO – The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 – also known as SOFI 2021.

The subtitle of the new report effectively says it all – Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition, and affordable diets for all.  Because 18 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and early into the Decade of Action for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, that’s exactly the mindset that the world needs to be embrace:  food system transformation.

This year’s SOFI report is another in a line of critical reports signaling the need for urgent change to transform our food system to address the critical social and environmental needs laid out in the SDGs.

The signals of the need to rebuild a regenerative food system to ensure the long-term health of both people and planet are, of course, all around us.  Hunger?  For months I have been keenly aware of the increase in hunger at the local level – as well as nationally and globally – following the disruption of the food system and the global economic system by Covid-19.  It’s painfully visible to all of us if we choose to see it.  Environment?  As I write this post, for the second consecutive year I’m observing a sunset sharply obscured by the smoke from massive fires burning 3,000 miles away.  Climate?  The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed a litany of alarming points in its recent State of the Global Climate 2020 report, including a continued increase in the concentration of major GHG emissions in the atmosphere, accelerations in ice loss and sea level rise, and a continued rise in temperatures – including the fact that the past six years have been the six warmest on record.

As noted often on this blog, our global food system is a prime driver of environmental harm, contributing more than one-third of GHG emissions, consuming roughly 70% of freshwater, depleting soils, polluting oceans and waterways, and advancing deforestation and biodiversity loss, to name a few.

And despite the fact that this mechanized system produces more than enough food to feed humanity and moves all manner of food items around the world in hours, it is characterized by vast levels of waste and inequity – with hundreds of millions experiencing hunger and billions suffering nutrient deficiencies. 

The SOFI 2021 report effectively notes that the world is at a critical juncture – very different from 2015 when the commitment was made through the establishment of the SDGs to end hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition by 2030.

And it candidly states that the world is not on track in terms of achieving critical Targets under the Zero Hunger Goal (SDG2), including Target 2.1 (ending hunger and ensuring access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food for all year round) and Target 2.2 (ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030 and achieving internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under five by 2025). 

Key Statistics

The authors list several disturbing points underscoring the human element of the scale of hunger and malnutrition, including:

  • The world was not on track to meet the Target 2.1 and 2.2 commitments even before the Covid-19 pandemic, which has made achieving them much more challenging.
  • World hunger increased in 2020, and the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) increased by 1.5 percentage points to 9.9%.
  • Between 720 and 811 million individuals faced hunger in 2020, with an increase of up to 161 million over 2019.
  • Nearly one in three individuals (about 2.4 billion) lacked access to adequate food in 2020 (up by 320 million over 2019).
  • About 40% of these individuals (928 million, 11.9% of the global population) faced food insecurity at severe levels.
  • About 148 million more individuals were severely food insecure in 2020 versus 2019.
  • Regionally, more than one half of the world’s undernourished individuals are in Asia (418 million), while more than one third (282 million) are in Africa.
  • The high cost of healthy diets, combined with high levels of income inequality, make healthy diets unreachable for around 3 billion individuals in all parts of the world.
  • In terms of malnutrition, estimates for 2020 indicate that 22% of children under five (149 million) were affected by stunting, 6.7% (45 million) suffered from wasting, and 5.7% (39 million) were overweight.

Clearly, the world has an immense amount of work to do to address hunger and malnutrition globally.  

Drivers and Pathways

The report identified conflict, climate variability and extremes, economic slowdowns and downturns, and the unaffordability of healthy diets as the major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition, all of which have obviously been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Strikingly, the report indicates that in 2020, almost all of the world’s low- and middle-income countries were affected by economic downturns resulting from the pandemic, and that “the increase in their number of undernourished was more than five times greater than the highest increase in undernourishment in the last two decades.”

So when we consider that our food system continues to drive deforestation and biodiversity loss, thereby elevating the potential for future pandemics, we should worry about the related impact on global nutrition, too.

The report lays out six pathways for transforming food systems to address the major global drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition while ensuring affordable and healthy diets for all:

  1. Integrating humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding policies in conflict-affected areas
  2. Scaling up climate resilience across food systems
  3. Strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity
  4. Intervening along food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods
  5. Tackling poverty and structural inequalities (ensuring interventions are pro-poor and inclusive)
  6. Strengthening food environments and changing consumer behavior to promote dietary patterns with positive impacts on human health and the environment

Significantly, the report states that many countries are affected by multiple drivers, thus it’s important to apply multiple pathways simultaneously – in coordinated fashion – to maximize impact.

And on a foreboding note, the authors reiterate that with less than ten years remaining to 2030, the world Is “not on track to ending world hunger and malnutrition, and in the case of world hunger we are moving in the wrong direction.”  In addition, they note that the Covid-19 pandemic is simply “the tip of the iceberg,” exposing the many vulnerabilities of our food systems (conflict, climate variability, and economic downturns) that are “increasingly occurring simultaneously in countries, with interactions that seriously undermine food security and nutrition.”   

Takeaways for Reflection

The SOFI 2021 report provides several key points that warrant deep reflection, and the stakes couldn’t be higher, because the world simply must come together to solve these entrenched problems of global hunger and malnutrition. 

And to start, the overt message is appropriate and worth repeating: we’re not on track to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030, we are instead moving in the wrong direction.    

The authors not only look backward to consider how we got to this point, but they look forward as well.  They note that without bold action, particularly related to inequality in access to food, hunger will not be eradicated by 2030.  Further, holding all else constant, they project that about 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030 due to lasting effects of the pandemic.

They also emphasize that a food systems focus is needed to address the major drivers of hunger and malnutrition. And food system transformation provides opportunity.  By transforming our food systems to achieve greater resilience to the drivers of hunger and malnutrition, they can in turn provide affordable healthy diets that are both sustainable and inclusive.

The authors recommend that comprehensive “portfolios” of policies, investments, and legislation can and should be directed along the six major pathways simultaneously to maximize impact for food systems transformation – and systems approaches are needed to build them.  Further, “effective and inclusive governance mechanisms and institutions,” coupled with technology, data, and innovation, are needed to accelerate these portfolios.

We should also stress the multiplier effects from food system transformation.  In the same way that reducing food loss and waste positively impacts numerous other SDGs, a shift to healthy diets improves nutrition and health results while reducing climate externalities of food production.

Last, the SOFI report provides an important warning that must be heeded – and it is one that we’ve been emphasizing from the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic:  If the world doesn’t commit to bold actions to create a more equitable, regenerative food system – especially meeting hunger, nutrition, and climate goals – 2020 may simply be a preview of things to come.

Finding the Collective Will

As I reflect on all of the critical content in the SOFI 2021 report, I come back to perhaps the biggest takeaway of all:  How do we find the collective will among the nations of the world to commit to ending hunger and eradicating all forms of malnutrition?

After all, the right to food is a basic human right, and as FAO notes, the right to food cannot be realized with persisting hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition.”  And providing adequate food for all global citizens is certainly foundational for achieving the remaining SDGs.

And yet after years of decline from 2005, the number of undernourished individuals in the world has been on the rise since 2015.  See Figure 1 of the report (which can be viewed in this interactive page by FAO) – it’s a powerful visual, especially the sharpness of the uptick between 2019 and 2020.

And when one considers the speed with which technological advances are leading to efficiency gains in so many sectors, it’s hard to believe that from a food security standpoint the world is in a worse place than six years ago when the SDGs were announced.  There’s an important disconnect here for all of us to consider.  How can we not prioritize applying our human and technological capital to feeding humanity?

Of course it’s not easy, but increasingly I believe this comes down to a fundamental issue – caring and will.  Does the world – and particularly the developed world – care enough to come together and fundamentally address global hunger and nutrition challenges?  Can we find the collective will to address these urgent, solvable problems?  

We need to get beyond the numbing nature of the numbers, and the far away nature of hunger and malnutrition.  These are not issues limited to the developing world – they are serious issues for the developed world, too.  Meaningful progress requires resolving conflicts, limiting climate change, reducing the impact of economic downturns on those with limited resources, addressing root causes of poverty and inequality, reducing food losses and waste, transforming our food systems in myriad ways, and much more.  But everything starts with global commitment and will at a higher level – driven by caring and compassion for fellow citizens.

And the ultimate kicker is that it is in all of our interests to do so, and we don’t really have a choice.  Ensuring global food security is foundational for global security, and transforming our food systems to be equitable, inclusive, sustainable and regenerative lays the path for successfully feeding 10 billion by 2050 and ensuring the long-term health of the planet.   

In a July 12 launch session of the SOFI 2021 report, FAO Director General Qu Dongyu candidly communicated key messages from the report, including the fact that the world is not on track to achieve any of the key nutrition indicators by 2030, and that without urgent action 660 million citizens may still be facing hunger in 2030.

He correctly noted that the world has no choice but to transform our agri-food systems as a pivotal way to address the drivers of hunger and malnutrition, and we have just nine growing seasons to do so through bold commitments and effective actions.  He also pointed out that the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit is a key opportunity to launch those collaborative actions.  And we all need to be focusing on the opportunity in rebuilding a better food system.

Further, in a powerful commentary, David Beasley of the World Food Programme poignantly stressed that if the SOFI 2021 report isn’t a wake-up call for change to address hunger and malnutrition, then he doesn’t know what is. 

Beasley went deeper into the numbers, translating the chronic and acute hunger figures into daily perspective, and stressing that we are headed in the wrong direction – noting that the idea of ending hunger by 2030 is “not even possible given the direction and trajectory that we’re on now.”

Beasley warned that if the world doesn’t address hunger and malnutrition in a serious way, we will see mass famine, destabilization of nations, and mass migration – so we must view the messages of the SOFI report as a “wake-up call to the entire world” to address root causes.  Citing the vast amount of wealth in the world today, Beasley noted that there shouldn’t be a single child with a nutrition deficiency, and the fact that we have so many is a disgrace on humanity.  He concluded by noting that the “starvation of humanity” must be a number one issue for the world, while challenging the media to properly cover it.

Last, Beasley called for the leaders of the world to get focused on addressing the drivers of hunger and malnutrition so that we can have a healthy planet, stressing that we have the expertise and experience to do it, but we need the political willpower to prioritize our children and our future on planet Earth.

I couldn’t agree more.  It’s staggering that we are headed in the wrong direction in terms of hunger and malnutrition despite continued, rapid advances in technology and innovation.

We must embrace this generational opportunity and find the will to transform our food systems to not only eradicate hunger and malnutrition, but to lay the foundation for achieving other critical social and environmental targets covered in the Sustainable Development Goals. 

We are at the inflection point, the critical juncture, for the needed food system transformation to address hunger, malnutrition, and climate change.

Let’s get focused.  Let’s find the will.