Blogs, Systems Thinking

Taking the Pulse of Dietary Health: The State of Global Food Security and Nutrition

Ensuring a nutritious diet for every individual is an imperative goal for our food systems. Yet, world hunger is on the rise for the ninth year running, as outlined last week in the 2023 edition of the annual State of the Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report. 

The findings are clear: the world is moving backwards in its efforts to reach Zero Hunger by 2030. The report reveals that more than 3.1 billion people in the world could not afford a healthy diet in 2021, and an estimated 29.6 percent of the global population were moderately or severely food insecure in 2022.

The SOFI report, a comprehensive assessment conducted by the United Nations, provides a crucial overview of global dietary health, measuring the progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets to end hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition by 2030 while assessing major challenges to these goals.  

As global food systems demonstrate limits to providing healthy and sustainable diets for a large proportion of the world, climate extremes, conflicts, the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic shocks only exacerbate its failures. As these factors widen existing inequalities, they hamper access to safe, healthy, and affordable food: contributing to the triple burden of malnutrition (undernutrition, overnutrition or obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies).

Below we synthesize the SOFI report’s key findings. 

Those in regions most vulnerable to climate change are more often directly involved in food production, thus at greater risk of poverty and hunger during extreme weather events. The most climate-vulnerable regions also typically have higher levels of poverty, and socio-economic fragility. As climate change intensifies competition over viable land and scarce resources, it worsens conflict and forced displacement. This nexus between climate impacts and conflict is thus further compounding hunger; in 2022, urgent food assistance was required in 58 food-crisis territories

Meanwhile, high-income countries are beset by unhealthy diets, especially poorer communities with limited time and resources to access healthier options. Nutritious and freshly prepared meals are increasingly replaced by cheap and under-regulated ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which are responsible for a steep rise in non-communicable diseases. Urbanization is also a key contributing factor to poorer diets, with the report finding that children in urban areas are at higher risk of being overweight, while the prevalence of stunting and wasting was higher in rural areas. Migration to urban areas in emerging economies is also linked with higher consumption of UPFs. 

Food insecurity and hunger are thus on the rise across all countries, regardless of their economic status.

The message of this year’s SOFI report is unequivocal: our food systems demand an urgent and transformative shift. In 2022, an estimated 691 to 783 million people worldwide faced hunger, which was 122 million more than in 2019 before the global COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, about 29.6% of the global population, totalling 2.4 billion people, experienced moderate to severe food insecurity, and among them, approximately 900 million individuals (11.3% of the global population) were severely food insecure.

Stunting, a key indicator of chronic undernutrition, remains a key concern globally: affecting an estimated 148.1 million (22.3%) children under five years of age. Wasting, a condition that puts children at higher risk of illness and mortality, affected 45 million (6.8%) children, and 37 million (5.6%) were overweight in 2022. 

The access and affordability of food came under significant strain due to the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the supply of grain, fertilizer, and fuel. This conflict directly contributed to a rise in the number of undernourished people.

Projections indicate that nearly 600 million people will be chronically undernourished in 2030. This figure is approximately 119 million higher than in a scenario in which neither the COVID-19 pandemic nor the war in Ukraine had occurred, and around 23 million higher than if the war in Ukraine had not happened. As a consequence, this situation has severely impacted several regions highly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian imports for basic food supply, including the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Africa.

The evidence presented from this year’s report makes clear that universal access to healthy, affordable food is vital for a sustainable future, and that addressing these challenges is crucial to building a more equitable and resilient world in the years to come.

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Current government subsidies for limited and less-nutritious commodities (such as cereal, meat, and dairy) continue to have a negative impact on health, and their reliance on monoculture techniques is hampering efforts to build more adaptive and diverse agri-food systems. To foster healthier communities and sustainable environments, it is imperative to redirect fiscal support toward the production and consumption of nutritious foods. By doing so, we can achieve a multitude of benefits, creating a win-win situation for both human health and the planet. 

Transitioning to a more just and equitable food system can significantly alleviate the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on healthcare services, reduce the prevalence of diet-related illnesses, improve educational outcomes for children, and minimize the impact of chemical inputs on biodiversity and ecosystems. Additionally, it has the potential to foster peace, considering that food insecurity is linked to social instability, conflict, and tension over scarce resources.

Achieving resilience in the face of climate and economic shocks, and ensuring food security and nutrition, demands both global cooperation and local action. Numerous case studies from around the world provide ample evidence that these goals are attainable through well-designed policies and grassroots activities:

  • The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) is working to improve nutritional outcomes in urban food environments with an international agreement between cities across the world. As of 2022, 225 city mayors had signed the pact, committing to 37 recommended actions with indicators to monitor progress. Cities around the world are working with networks like C40 to align their food systems with broader social and environmental goals. 
  • In Senegal, the government has committed to ambitious agroecology and agroforestry interventions to protect and recover natural ecosystems, while providing co-benefits for food systems resilience and farmer incomes. The Agroecology Coalition joins over 40 governments committed to advancing agroecology and regenerative approaches.
  • The Canadian organization Shkagamik-Kwe Health Center is promoting culturally relevant approaches to improving dietary health. Addressing the importance of access to traditional land and food sovereignty for the well-being of Indigenous communities, they have created several land and food-based programs. Indigenous foodways around the world point to ecologically and culturally rooted ways of addressing systemic food insecurity.

With the UN Food Systems Stocktake taking place next week, effectively countering food insecurity and undernutrition requires challenging the short-term solutions and one-size-fits-all approaches which currently dominate industrial food systems, and prioritizing profit over people’s health, social outcomes and agricultural environments. These stories of transformation offer impactful examples of how context-specific and collaborative actions can pave the way for transformative changes in our food system. To achieve this transformation, it is essential to build alliances between public health experts and governments to make healthy foods more accessible and affordable; support agroecology and other regenerative approaches to promote locally-based, diverse diets and ecosystems; and foster land stewardship by Indigenous communities for food sovereignty and justice. 

Let this report and examples of transformative change around the world serve as a call to inspire decision-makers to foster greater partnerships between public, private, and philanthropic bodies and prioritize health, equity, resilience, and sustainability, to lay the foundation for a thriving future. We cannot afford to wait any longer; the time to act is now.