Food safety
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Hunger, a complex web of vulnerabilities

The paradox of the hungry world is that agri-food systems are capable of producing enough food for all of humanity. Two FAO experts wonder: what are we doing wrong?

Food safety
Producing enough to feed the world should be feasible with today's technology.© FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

A few weeks ago we were shaken by the alarming figures of hunger in the world. There have been many headlines warning that hunger now affects 828 million people, an increase of 150 million since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is even more worrying for Latin America and the Caribbean, the region that has suffered the greatest increase in food insecurity, and in which 60 million people do not have enough food to eat.

Hunger is a gender issue. Globally, about 32% of women are moderately or severely food insecure, compared to 27.6% of men. Again, Latin America experiences the highest figures, with a food security gender gap exceeding 11%.

The outlook is grim; 670 million people are expected to be undernourished by the end of this decade, putting us off track to reach the Zero Hunger goal set by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The paradox of this hungry world is that agrifood systems can produce enough food to feed humanity. The obvious question then is: what are we doing wrong? Are we asking the right questions about the real causes of hunger?

The ongoing war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, along with climate change, highlight the complexity of hunger. They show that crises hit people in vulnerable situations especially hard, and are the breeding ground for the increase in inequalities and poverty.

Women are particularly impacted by high food prices, since they allocate more money to family consumption, especially when they are heads of household

On the one hand, the war in Ukraine not only slows economic growth and triggers inflation, it can also cause lasting damage to food supply chains.

Inflation reduces the savings of the poorest households, who tend to spend most of their income on food and have less resilient livelihoods.

Women are particularly impacted by high food prices, since they allocate more money to family consumption, especially when they are heads of household.

Higher prices hinder access to agricultural inputs for small-scale farmers, and to a healthy and nutritious diet for the poorest consumers, especially in low-income countries.

A prolonged reduction of exports by Ukraine and the Russian Federation would add pressure on international prices, to the detriment of the poorest net food-importing countries and the most vulnerable sectors of societies.

On the other hand, the pandemic has aggravated the situation of the most disadvantaged groups and has exacerbated existing inequalities within countries. As a result, extreme poverty and income inequality have both grown globally for the first time in 20 years.

Likewise, it has exposed gender inequalities, since women have dedicated more hours to care tasks, and violence against them has escalated. Their worsening food insecurity and nutritional status would also contribute to more babies born with low birthweight and, consequently, more malnourished children.

If inequality and poverty are causes of hunger, they must also be the solution. Although, this equation is not always obvious to everyone.

Inequalities are often overlooked in public discourse as they are less striking and visible, and above all more complex to deal with. Hunger is the tip of the iceberg, underneath which lies a network of factors, including inequality and poverty.

To prevent a worsening food crisis, it is urgent that States address inequalities in their public policies, prioritizing the most vulnerable, marginalized and excluded.

They should strengthen public services for health, social protection, education, food, water and sanitation, and housing, focusing first on the most vulnerable and applying a gender-lens.

Investing in such essential services would pay off in the short term by mitigating the impact of the crises, and in the long term by nurturing human development, economic productivity and resilience, as well as fostering institutions that would be able to withstand and respond effectively to future shocks.

The human rights-based approach offers guidance in the design and implementation of these public policies and services.

Addressing poverty and hunger from a human rights perspective has the potential to set in motion interventions that tackle the root of the challenges which keep the most vulnerable in a downward spiral of poverty and hunger.

It facilitates a move away from temporary and ad hoc measures, towards a commitment to long-term inclusive public policies, with sufficiently resourced public services.

This approach requires international cooperation. Governments imposing restrictions on exports must protect the right to food domestically while minimizing impacts on food supplies and prices for other countries.

It holds government entities and international institutions accountable to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. It also calls for governments not just to provide public services or social protection on paper, but to ensure people are aware of their rights and can access the benefits to which they are entitled.

Policymaking failures prevent us from living with dignity, agency and empowerment. It is more important than ever to put on the table the key role in the fight against hunger played by policies and public services that protect economic, social and cultural rights. The objective is not only to build back better but to build back fairer.

As the world seeks to emerge from the crises triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, conflicts and climate change, we must promote, through human rights, policy reforms for the sustainable transformation of agri-food systems. This is and will be a condition sine qua non to guarantee that all people, everywhere and at all times, have access to adequate food.

Benjamin Davis is Director of the Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equality Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and Serena Pepino is a Policy Expert of the Right to Food Team at FAO.

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