What is hunger?
When we think of hunger, we often think of images of skeletal children during a famine or drought. Unfortunately, this type of acute hunger exists. It is the result of being without food for an extended period of time, due to emergencies such as conflict or natural disasters.
However, this only describes about one in eight cases of hunger in the developing world. More often, hunger is the result of not having enough food to eat over a long period of time, or not eating sufficiently nutritious food. This kind of hunger is less visible, slowly affecting people over time.
When not enough food is consumed, the body is undernourished. It compensates by slowing down its physical and mental activities. Without enough food, people cannot concentrate at school or work. They don’t have the energy needed for physical work. And since it weakens the immune system, hunger also makes people vulnerable to disease.
Today, around 800 million people around the world are undernourished. In other words, they regularly don’t get enough food to eat. They only get the bare minimum of food necessary to keep them alive. Every night, many go to bed not knowing if they will have enough food tomorrow. They are food insecure, a situation described by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization as “when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.”
At Canadian Foodgrains Bank, we respond to acute hunger when it occurs, and where our members are active, providing emergency food relief. We also address the challenge of food insecurity—working with people who don’t have enough to eat find ways to grow or buy more high quality food in the longer-term so they can move toward becoming food secure. We also support nutrition programs for mothers and children.
Why are people hungry?
The causes of hunger and food insecurity are complex.
Although most of the world’s media attention on hunger is given to natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and tsunamis that lead to hunger, they are not the major causes of hunger and food insecurity.
Poverty. Hunger and poverty go hand-in-hand. In fact, the connection is so strong that the first and second of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are “end poverty” and “zero hunger”. But why are people poor? The reasons below shed light on the causes of both hunger and poverty.
The rising cost of food. As food prices rise, the world’s poorest people are hit the hardest since they can spend up to 75 percent of their income on food. To cope, many people cut back on the number of meals they eat each day, or buy cheaper, less nutritious food.
Conflict. Conflict interrupts normal life, causing displacement, stress, illness and injury, and prevents people from providing food for themselves. For people who depend on farming to earn a livelihood, it means being forced from their land and from a source of income and food.
Natural Disasters & Climate Change. Changing weather patterns and extreme weather events, attributed to climate change, are disrupting the production of food around the world. The ramifications are most acute in places such as Africa and Asia, where small-holder farmers have no back-up if their crops fail due to drought, changes to historic rainfall patterns, or too much rain.
Lack of investment in agriculture. The majority of people in the developing world live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. However, not enough resources are directed their way to help them grow food more efficiently, or to cope with the effects of climate change. Therefore, poor soil fertility and lack of access to agricultural knowledge or inputs, such as good quality seeds, also contribute to hunger.
Gender inequality & Discrimination. Many women in developing countries are food providers and also primary caregivers. But in many cases they are excluded from decision making and do not have control over land and resources, making it difficult to meet their family’s food needs. Being born into a certain social setting may also greatly increase your chances of being negatively affected by hunger and poverty–that goes double if you are female.
Unjust Policies. Sometimes rules about how food and other resources are shared can make thing more difficult for people who experience chronic hunger. We can speak up and influence decision makers to ensure that trade or aid policies don’t make it harder for people to feed themselves.
Who is hungry?
There is enough food in the world to feed everyone, yet around 800 million people in the world do not have enough food to live healthy and active lives. Globally, that is about one in nine people. While that number is still unacceptable, there has been an improvement. Ten years ago the number was over 1 billion. Significant progress has been made to reduce hunger and poverty, owing to economic development and social protection. Latin America has made significant progress, as have a number of other countries that have put measures in place with the goal of achieving food security.
The vast majority of hungry people–roughly 97%–live in developing countries. Children, women, and rural communities are most at risk for hunger.
According to the United Nations some 795 million people in the world who are undernourished (not eating enough for basic calorie consumption):
- 512 million live in Asia (12% of the population);
- 233 million live in Africa (20% of the population);
- 34 million live in Latin America and the Caribbean (5% of the population); and
- 1.4 million live in Oceania (14% of the population);
- 14 million live in developed countries.
Children. Hunger hits children the hardest. Proper nutrition is particularly important for children who are growing and developing. They need a wide variety of nutrients to ensure healthy development. Children who do not get enough food are also at a higher risk for disease, since a lack of food weakens the immune system.
The first two years of life are a particularly important time for good nutrition. The effects of poor nutrition during the first one thousand days of life can be irreversible. Enough healthy food (including micronutrients) and proper healthcare for very young children create a strong foundation for a healthy life.
Pregnant and Nursing Mothers. When hunger comes to a community or family, women are usually the first to go without food, often giving up their share for their children. Good nutrition is extremely important for pregnant and nursing mothers. Extra calories and nutrients are required during pregnancy and breast feeding to ensure that the baby is getting enough food to grow and develop. Babies born to mothers who do not have adequate food or nutrition are at higher risk for diseases and other problems.
Rural Communities. Unfortunately, the people who are most food insecure are rural farmers—the very people who we might expect to be able to feed themselves. Up to 80 percent of the world’s poorest citizens depend on farming for their livelihood, but they often struggle. It is estimated that 70 percent of small-holder farmers are hungry.
How can people become more food secure?
A variety of strategies are needed to help people become food secure. These can include: increasing food production through improved farming methods; improvements in the sale and marketing of food; and reducing vulnerability to shocks such as sudden food price hikes or weather-related challenges (drought, too much rain, etc.).
Improved livelihoods also contribute to food security. When people have good jobs and are making a fair income, they are able to buy the food they need.
Click here to find out how the Foodgrains Bank is supporting food security around the world.