Access to food is widely considered one of the most basic of human rights, but the world is failing to deliver on a staggering scale. The recently released Global Report on Food Crises 2017 is a unique collaboration between the European Union, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), several food security institutions and the United Nations. The picture it paints was already dismal to begin with, but the findings show it continues to worsen by no small margin. In 2015, 80 million people around the globe experienced severe food insecurity, with the number skyrocketing to 108 million in 2016. That's an uptick of 28 million men, women and children — in only one year.
When people people are food insecure, it means that they don't have day-to-day access to enough food for normal growth and development to live a healthy life. Lack of adequate nutrition can cause everything from stunted growth to severe wasting to death. In fact, it's estimated that one child dies every 10 seconds because of hunger-related disease.
So how did the situation go from bad to so very much worse? "We're sort of at a place where you're seeing a perfect storm of events," explains Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a nonprofit that aims to alleviate hunger, obesity and poverty, noting that the continued escalation of conflicts, climate change and other extreme weather events are the biggest culprits for the sharp increase in people who became food insecure between 2015 and 2016. Nierenberg says she is frustrated by the lack of media coverage and general disinterest in an issue that places 20 million people on the brink of famine.
The report notes that drought conditions caused by El Niño are making it difficult for farmers to produce affordable, readily available food in many areas. That lower supply contributes to elevated food prices. Southern and Eastern Africa have borne the brunt of these weather-related hunger issues, with 9.7 million food insecure in Ethiopia alone. Current projections for 2017 suggest that the situation will only continue to worsen.
Mother Nature doesn't hold all the blame, however, or even a majority of it. Civil conflict has a direct effect on food security, with 7 million food-insecure people living in war-torn Syria and 8.5 million in Afghanistan. Surrounding areas are also burdened by war-related food shortages, since millions are routinely displaced to other stressed cities and towns, further exacerbating the problem.
Things have gotten so out of hand in sub-Saharan Africa that four countries (Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan) are staring down the very real possibility of famine, thanks to rampant government corruption and civil conflict. Yemen alone is home to a whopping 17 million food-insecure people, according to the report.
"This is not rare; this is something we're going to be seeing more of because we have all these different pressures on farmers and agriculture from the weather and government," Nierenberg says. "It's a structural and political problem, but one we can solve."
To succeed in reversing this trend, it would likely require funding from major foundations, and both local and foreign governments to make sure that financial resources are used wisely, with the best interests of the people in mind. "That takes beating down corruption and leaders who are willing to take a stand and make sure those things aren't happening," Nierenberg says. "I think the resources are there [in Africa] to fight a lot of this," she notes, adding, "There's a lack of focus and political will, not just by the U.S. but by the countries experiencing these issues."