The top 9 causes of world hunger

February 27, 2018
Photo by Alexia Webster

1 in 9 people go hungry each day — but why? Check out the top 9 causes of world hunger.

When it comes to world hunger, it’s easy to become so overwhelmed by the “what” that we sometimes forget to ask “why.” And while the level of hunger in the world has decreased by 27% since 2000, 1 in 9 people (815 million worldwide) still go hungry. Here, we look into some of the root causes of world hunger that we need to address if we’re to meet our goal of a hunger-free world by 2030.

1. Poverty

Poverty and hunger exist in a vicious cycle: Those living in poverty often face hunger as they cannot afford nutritious food for themselves and their families. On the flip-side, hunger fuels poverty as it’s difficult for people to earn more money when they’re undernourished. In response, families may sell off their livestock or tools, or buy only staple foods like wheat rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. All of these measures buy short-term relief but perpetuate a longer-term cycle of hunger and poverty. This cycle often passes on from parents to their children, making it hard to break the pattern. Poverty frequently goes hand-in-hand with many of the other causes of hunger on this list — read on for more.

2. Food shortages

Over the past ten years, the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa (including Somalia and Kenya) have been repeatedly affected by food shortages and widespread malnutrition. In these areas, where families rely on their own small farms to grow their food, there are periods before harvests known as “hungry seasons.” These are the times of year when food supplies from the previous harvest are all but exhausted, yet the opportunity to replenish supplies is still some time away. In years of bountiful harvests, families often try to put aside reserves. But changes in climate have led to repeated droughts in some areas and floods in others, devastating any meager reserves families might have had. That means families are forced to skip one or several meals each day in order to make it to the next harvest — which could be months away.

Ali Assen Ali, with two of his daughters, on their potato farm

Ali Assen Ali with two of his daughters, on their farm 12,000 feet up in the highlands of South Wollo, Ethiopia. Ali has been participating in a Concern-sponsored scheme that encourages farmers to look at alternative crops. After his third year, he has more than tripled his output of potatoes, producing 6.6 tons last year. Photo: Kieran McConville

3. War & conflict

It’s not just weather and harvest patterns that lead to hunger: War and conflict are also among the leading causes. In South Sudan, civil war has led to mass displacement and abandoned fields. The resulting crop failure, combined with a soaring inflation rate that puts imported food out of reach, has left 3.5 million people hungry. Similarly, Yemen’s ongoing conflict has led to 17 million people facing hunger — approximately 65% of the population.

4. Climate change

Some countries, such as Zambia, enjoy relative peace and stability yet are often plagued by hunger due to droughts or floods. Too much or too little rainfall can destroy harvests or substantially reduce the amount of animal pasture available. Unfortunately these fluctuations — which are made worse by the El Niño weather system and are likely to increase due to changes in climate — often affect the poorest regions of the world the most. What’s more, the World Bank estimates that climate change has the power to push more than 100 million people into poverty over the next decade.

Crops grow on a farm in Niger.

Crops grow on a farm in Niger. Three years ago, Concern provided some of the country’s poorest communities with seeds that are better able to cope with Niger’s changing climate, as well as advice on better farming techniques. Photo: Chris de Bode/Panos Pictures

5. Poor nutrition

When we talk about hunger, we’re not just talking about access to food, but also access to nutrients. In order to thrive, humans need a range of foods providing a variety of essential nutrients. Poor families often rely on just one or two staple foods— like corn or wheat — which means they’re not getting enough of critical macronutrients like protein, and they’re also missing out on lots of important vitamins and minerals. The less nutritious a person’s diet, the poorer their health will be, the less sustainable energy they will have, and the less likely they will be to break the poverty-hunger cycle. This is especially important for women and young children: Nutrition support during pregnancy and up to the age of five can help protect children for their entire lives, reducing the likelihood of disease, poor health, and cognitive impairment. Through the LANN project, communities in countries like Sierra Leone are learning how to identify nutrient-rich wild foods that are safe to eat in order to make the most of their available resources.

6. Policy

Systemic problems, like poor infrastructure or a lack of investment in agriculture, often make it hard for food and water to reach those who need it most. Ending hunger requires commitment, concerted action, and political will at both national and international levels, with focuses on sustainable development, climate change, and disaster risk reduction. Each year, Concern partners with the International Food Policy Research Institute and Welthungerhilfe to produce the Global Hunger Index; released last October, the 2017 edition contains more policy suggestions to end world hunger.

7. Economy

Much like the poverty-hunger cycle, nutritional resilience at a national level is tied to a country’s economic resilience. For example, Liberia‘s overall economic troubles deepened after the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and now more than 15% of the country’s families don’t know where their next meal will come from. Working towards economic stability is crucial to addressing other issues.

Members of the community committee in Bongay village, Sierra Leone, proudly display the range of foods they're now growing and foraging for.

Members of the community committee in Bongay village, Sierra Leone, proudly display the range of foods they’re now growing and foraging for, as part of the Natural Resources Management and Nutrition (LANN) project in their village. Photo: Kieran McConville

8. Food waste

According to the World Food Programme1/3 of all food produced — over 1.3 billion tons of it — is never consumed. What’s more, producing this wasted food also uses other natural resources that, when threatened, have a ripple effect in the countries that are already hit hardest in terms of hunger, poverty, and climate change. Producing this wasted food requires an amount of water equal to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River and adds 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

9. Gender inequality

In its outline of the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN reveals that, “if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million.” Female farmers are responsible for growing, harvesting, preparing, and selling the majority of food in poor countries. Women are on the frontlines of the fight against hunger, yet they are frequently underrepresented at the forums where important decisions on policy and resources are made.


While the causes of hunger are complex, change is possible and there is hope in action. Learn more about how Concern is protecting the world’s poorest from the rising price of food, how mobile phones can fight hunger in the Sahel region of Africa, and make your own impact by supporting our efforts working in some of the world’s 10 hungriest countries.   

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