The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For decades, global hunger was on the decline. Now it’s getting worse again — and climate change is to blame.

An animal carcass lies on a riverbed in Brazil during a drought in 2015. (Raphael Alves/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

In recent decades, world hunger didn’t go away, but it did decrease. About 19 percent of the world population was undernourished in 1990. That number had dropped to 11 percent by 2014, with the occasional hiccup, such as in the early 2000s partially due to the global insecurity surrounding the 9/11 attacks.

That steady improvement to the world's diet, however, came to an end three years ago, according to a new U.N. report released Tuesday. By 2017, 821 million people were undernourished (up from 750 million in 2013), reaching the levels of 10 years ago.

The culprit: The rising number of natural disasters, likely brought on by climate change.

“The report sends a clear message that climate variability and exposure to more complex, frequent and intense climate extremes are threatening to erode and even reverse the gains made in ending hunger and malnutrition,” the authors write. Conflicts in many developing nations have also contributed to deteriorating prospects for the fight against world hunger.

The trend is not as strongly pronounced when adjusted for population increase, but figures have risen from 10.6 percent in 2015 to 10.9 percent last year.

There are some geographical differences, with Africa and South America the most heavily affected. In much of Asia, North America and Europe, the situation has improved or remained stable.

With Asia now a role model in terms of global nourishment rates, the coming years could also intensify global disagreement over how to tackle hunger and poverty best. The global improvement in hunger rates over the past few decades are in no small part due to Asian nations’ success at growing their economies.

The increase in undernourishment in Africa comes as China is challenging the international model of development aid by offering economic deals and loans for infrastructure projects rather than programs for capacity building increasingly favored by the West. While critics are accusing Beijing of exploiting resource-rich countries, supporters are pointing at promising growth numbers.

In Latin America — where slowing economic growth in countries such as Brazil and Venezuela has coincided with political unrest — China has challenged the more traditional Western aid system in a similar way.

But the more urgent task of preventing large-scale famines or disasters is still mostly being carried out by Western-led development aid organizations. Tuesday’s U.N. report suggests that their role will become even more crucial in the coming years.