A humanitarian riddle: Hunger is a pretty simple concept. But it’s also an incredibly complex concept. You may know, for instance, that one out of every nine people are living at some level of food insecurity. But what is food insecurity? Is that the same as malnutrition? When is a famine a famine? And how many people are facing these issues?
Here, we cover both numbers and the meaning behind them. In addition to some world hunger facts and figures for 2022, this piece also includes a quick primer to some of the most frequently asked questions and frequently used terms that we use around global hunger — and why their definitions matter for the work that we do.
“Around 193 million people were acutely food insecure last year; this will only get worse, with the impacts of the Ukraine conflict on food costs and availability and one of the worst droughts in 40 years in the Horn of Africa.” — Anushree Rao, Director of Advocacy, Policy, and Campaigns, Concern UK
World hunger facts and figures for 2022
- The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we entered 2022 with 828 million hungry people
- This number represents an increase of approximately 150 million hungry people since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic
- In July of 2022, the World Food Programme warned that, of the approximately 828 million people facing hunger, 345 million were experiencing acute hunger (more on that below)
- The number of acutely hungry people in the world increased by 25% in just three months. This increase in global hunger is attributed to the conflict in Ukraine. At the end of 2021, approximately 193 million people experienced acute hunger.
- That 828 million isn’t the largest figure for world hunger: The FAO estimates that there are 2.3 billion people facing less extreme, but still dangerous, levels of food insecurity. That’s roughly 29% of the global population.
- In 2020, 3.1 billion people around the world could not afford a healthy diet — an increase of over 119 million compared to 2019
- Hunger is sexist: Over 31% of women in the world face hunger, compared to just 27% of men. This gender gap has intensified since the pandemic.
- Hunger also hits children especially hard: The FAO estimates 45 million children under the age of five suffer wasting. Wasting increases the risk of child mortality by up to 12 times.
- The FAO also estimates that 149 million children under the age of five are affected by stunting due to a lack of essential nutrients and adequate food.
- Even if we rebound from the economic fallout of the pandemic, the UN predicts that we’ll fall well short of our goal for Zero Hunger by 2030. At the end of this decade, it estimates there will still be 670 million people facing hunger.
- 9 million people die from hunger every year
The terminology here is also important. Read on below for a global hunger glossary.
Food security happens when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
This definition, courtesy of the FAO, gives us a more measurable definition of hunger. It also provides four areas of focus that guide our work at Concern:
Food availability: A sufficient amount of quality food is available to communities (including food aid).
Food access: People are able to access the amount of food they’re entitled to in order to maintain a nutritious diet for themselves and their families.
Food utilization: People then use that food — along with clean water and healthcare opportunities — to maintain a healthy lifestyle and meet all of their nutritional needs. This relates to the intersectional nature of food security. Non-food elements like water access and strong health systems are also critical to solving global hunger.
Food stability: People can count on having access to an adequate amount of food at all times. This holds true even in the case of sudden shocks or cyclical hungry seasons (more on that below).
Hunger vs. famine
What is a famine?
“Famine” is a word that is often used (and misused) for emotional or metaphoric effect to describe food crises of varying size and scope. In our work, however, there are clear-set guidelines around what constitutes a famine. A famine is declared when:
- 20% of a population are suffering extreme food shortages
- 30% of children under the age of 5 are suffering acute malnutrition
- The death rate of an area has doubled, or two people (or four children) out of every 10,000 people die each day
These criteria were established by the United Nations. However, it’s up to individual governments to declare the beginning (and end) of a famine. This can be especially difficult in many of the world’s hungriest countries: Generally, famines occur in areas where there is a lack of infrastructure, which can make these data points hard to know for certain.
What’s the difference between famine and hunger?
Hunger is also a quantifiable term in our work. The UN defines it as a minimum of one year where a group or community is unable to consume enough calories and nutrients to maintain a healthy weight and carry out basic physical activity. This is obviously a much broader category, but a hunger crisis can still have disastrous implications for a community.
What causes famine?
Many of the same causes of hunger also contribute to a famine. The World Food Programme points to five main contributors:
- High food prices
- Natural disasters
- Climate change
- Lack of humanitarian access
Looking at the above, you may notice that some of these causes are connected. These intersectionalities are one of the biggest reasons that a hunger crisis becomes a famine. In these situations, there is never an easy fix. The WFP also points out that these causes of famine (unlike some causes of hunger) are largely man-made, meaning that we can control the outcomes at a high-enough level.
Other words for hunger
Around the same time that some defining contours were placed around “famine,” the Food and Agriculture Organization published the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC breaks down five phases of food security:
Phase 1. Generally Food Secure communities usually have a reliable source of food with low-to-moderate risks for crisis-level food insecurity (Phases 3, 4, and 5)
Phase 2. Moderately Food Insecure communities have a borderline reliable source of food, and have a recurring high risk for food insecurity (due to a combination of vulnerability to risk and possible hazards like a natural disaster or conflict).
Phase 3. Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis situations happen when a community is highly stressed due to any number of causes, which result in a critical lack of food access that results in higher-than-normal levels of malnutrition and loss of livelihoods. If these circumstances continue, the crisis will become an emergency or famine.
Phase 4. Humanitarian Emergency is declared when there is a severe lack of food access with higher than average levels of mortality, malnutrition, and loss of livelihoods that the FAO would term “irreversible.”
Phase 5. Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe. This is also a situation that the FAO links to forced migration and social upheaval.
All of these terms seem a little clinical…
Yes. But these terms are just one way of looking at global hunger. These classifications give us a way of understanding the most severe emergencies. From there, we can focus efforts accordingly. Global hunger levels have gone down significantly since 1980. However, 1 in 9 people still move between Phases 3, 4, and 5 of food security.
At the same time, we realize that there are people on the other side of these efforts, not just numbers. This is why we tailor our approaches to food insecurity to both the severity and the circumstances of the communities we serve. We work with local leaders and incorporate indigenous knowledge to ensure that our solutions are appropriate and sustainable. It’s helpful to think of the terms above as diagnoses: They don’t define a person, just their current circumstances.
In addition to “how much,” the question of “when” is also important in addressing global hunger. Worldwide, 65% of working adults living in poverty earn their living — and feed their families — through agriculture. In countries like Malawi, this proportion can exceed 80%.
One of the most consistent forms of food insecurity is known as the hunger season or hungry season. This is a time of year between planting and harvest when a family’s food supplies will run out. It can last for months. Hungry seasons can be longer or more severe in cases like climate change or natural disaster.
For example, Cyclone Idai made landfall in Malawi around the same time that crops like maize were nearing harvest. This threatened both immediate harvests and those that were still six months off. Short-cycle seeds were a simple yet critical solution that helped in both the short- and long-term.
At Concern, we tend to focus on some of the particulars of hunger, like agricultural solutions and cash transfers that offset hunger seasons, or programs that screen for, diagnose, and treat different levels of malnutrition. Sometimes, malnutrition centers around deficiency of one specific nutrient or a few key nutrients. (These are usually referred to as micronutrient deficiencies.) There are three main types of malnutrition that result from the deficiency of all nutrients:
- Moderate acute malnutrition
- Severe acute malnutrition
- Chronic malnutrition
Hunger is an intersectional issue
Concern’s nutrition strategy takes into account the intersectionalities of hunger. We create programs that respond to those intersections. There are four areas that, when addressed with nutrition in mind, can have major impact:
Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH): Ensuring that communities have access to clean water and hygiene services not only means that they can keep their crops and livestock well-maintained, but also that they will be less susceptible to waterborne illnesses that may prevent them from absorbing those nutrients.
Maternal and Child Health: Ensuring that children under 5 — and especially those under 2 — have the right nutrients and calories they need to develop can dramatically improve their chances of living a more fulfilling and creative life. Nutrients are passed onto children while they are in the womb and breastfeeding, so we also ensure that pregnant and lactating women have the right nutrients.
Agriculture: We’ve mentioned this earlier, but agriculture plays a key role in our work to reach Zero Hunger. This is especially true in countries where it makes up a large portion of livelihoods. We work to increase both the quantity of harvests and the quality, finding more nutrient-dense crops that will thrive with changing climates.
Livelihoods and Cash Transfers: For some of the people we work with, their work is in farming, but they either receive a low return on their investment — or, in some cases, no return. Programs like Graduation and ReGRADE have been established specifically to help with the business side of agriculture in many of the communities we serve (which also happen to be hunger hotspots), linking food security to financial empowerment. With Graduation programs, many participating families receive cash transfers to supplement their income as they build new skills. For other families who may experience the sudden shock of a natural disaster, cash transfers help ensure that these temporary losses don’t carry permanent ramifications.