UN report on nutrition gives Africa food for thought

Food security levels are no longer improving globally, and the trend for Africa is especially worrying.

The latest United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report shows a forthcoming global shift of food insecurity towards Africa. It also points to multiple trends that threaten to undermine decades of global progress towards ensuring universal access to safe, nutritious food.

The report says around 690 million people worldwide suffered from undernourishment in 2019. Africa didn’t have the largest number of undernourished people in absolute terms (about 250 million against 380 million in Asia). However, it did have the highest proportion of citizens living without sufficient access to calories (about 19% against 8.3% in Asia).

But that isn’t the whole story. Between 1990 and 2012, the percentage of people suffering from undernutrition globally fell from nearly 25% to about 9% – a reduction of almost 500 million people. Over the same period in Africa, the percentage of undernourished people dropped from 29% to 17%.

Undernutrition is defined as the number of people ‘whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide the dietary energy levels required to maintain a normal active and healthy life.’

Eight African conflicts have impaired food systems and contributed to growing hunger since 2014

Between 2014 and 2019 though, the downward trend stopped. The percentage of people suffering from undernutrition globally hovered around 8.5% (the figure for Africa was about 18.5%, but still relatively consistent). But due to population growth, the total number of people increased by roughly 40 million globally, 30 million of whom live in Africa.

There are several reasons for the global stagnation in food security since 2014. Disruptions to weather patterns caused by climate change have increased drought in some places, while disrupting agricultural production through floods and tropical storms in others. The growing variability and volatility of temperature and precipitation will continue, causing additional food production and distribution problems in Africa, says McKinsey.

There is also a strong inverse relationship between food security and violent conflict. The SOFI report cites eight African conflicts that have impaired food systems and contributed to growing hunger and undernourishment since 2014. When clashes are protracted, they can ‘easily destroy the resilience of well-functioning food systems’ long after the situation has been resolved.

The report highlights that food insecurity, climate change and conflict are not independent issues – they’re part of an intricate nexus that includes natural resources and other major components of daily life.

By 2030, Africa is forecast to have half the global total of undernourished people, up from 19% today

Regarding Africa, the SOFI study notes that climate change and the ‘associated spread of pests and diseases’ over the past 15 years have contributed to ‘vicious circles of poverty and hunger, particularly when exacerbated by fragile institutions, conflicts, violence and the widespread displacement of populations.’

On top of the chronically food insecure, there are an additional two billion people worldwide who suffer from moderate levels of food insecurity. This means their food supply is unpredictable, and they may have to reduce caloric intake due to seasonal fluctuations in income or other resources.

When the two categories are added together, the number of people in Africa experiencing food insecurity rises to 675 million – roughly half the population. Moreover, healthier foods like fruits and vegetables are relatively expensive in low-income countries. As a result, diets are heavy in staples like cereals, roots and tubers – foods that don’t necessarily support physiological and mental development in children and can pose dangers to women during pregnancy.

The report estimates that about 965 million people in Africa (around 75% of the population) couldn’t regularly afford a healthy diet in 2017. This has significant implications for long-term human and economic development. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, 37% of the world’s stunted children live in Africa. Again, despite improvements in lowering the proportion of stunted children, the absolute number continues to grow.

The solution to food insecurity cannot be to simply increase total agricultural production

The WHO says that in 2020, about 31% of children in Africa suffered from stunting – down from about 45% in 1990. But over the same three decades, the total number of children experiencing stunting has grown from 49 million to about 61 million, where it has stayed since about 2015.

Stunting is an irreversible condition. Children affected are less likely to develop proper cognitive functions or succeed at school, and are more likely to suffer from nutrition-related health problems, such as diabetes, later in life. Those same children are statistically more likely to be employed in low-wage jobs as adults, which may perpetuate the cycle for generations. 

Data from 2014-19 shows that current efforts aren’t enough to achieve the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. And the SOFI report indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic could add between 83 and 132 million people to the 690 million who were undernourished in 2019.

Even before adjusting for any disproportionate effects on food systems caused by COVID-19, Africa is still the region of the world most off-track to meet the second SDG. On the current trajectory, Africa is forecast to have around 430 million people suffering from undernourishment by 2030, or about half the global total in that year, up from just 19% of today’s global total.

The problem isn’t a matter of production though. There’s already enough food growing to feed the global population – if it were equitably distributed. But there are other reasons that the solution to food insecurity cannot be to simply increase agricultural production. Currently, the world’s food system accounts for as much as 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost 70% of global water consumption.

Unfortunately there isn’t a silver bullet for solving food security – but there are some general guidelines to building a healthy food system. The International Food Policy Research Institute provides seven considerations along the lines of coordinating water purity efforts with nutrition and health interventions, and improving agricultural water management.

The list isn’t exhaustive, and some interventions will be better suited for certain parts of the continent than others. For example, one can’t draw on sophisticated technologies without the underlying infrastructure. But many African communities can address existing social inequalities in water-nutrition linkages, especially where women comprise much of the agricultural workforce.

Perhaps most important is the need for policymakers to think comprehensively about the food, water, energy and climate change nexus while striving to use local conditions and expertise where possible. This is far easier said than done – but if it isn’t achieved, interventions may wind up harming the very people they are meant to help. 

Zachary Donnenfeld, Research Consultant, ISS

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Photo: © Christopher Scott / Alamy Stock Photo

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