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Hunger around the world

Although Western societies currently enjoy abundant food supplies, in the past they had to face up to many famines. Nowadays, 795 million people (1 person in every 9) are still undernourished in the world, especially in rural regions. Many are underweight and suffer from stunted growth. Various correlative factors such as weather conditions, political upheaval, wars, epidemics and poverty explain such food crises.
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A victim of civil war and floods waiting for humanitarian aid, Somalia, June 2016© Getty Images / Anadolu Agency / Nour Gelle Gedi

A step towards eradicating hunger and nutritional disorders in the world?

Over time, improved methods of communication and the food assistance programmes set up by various organisations have enabled us to fight starvation in the world more effectively. Living with hunger, synonymous with chronic undernourishment, is characterised by a prolonged situation of at least one year during which a person cannot acquire enough food to meet the daily dietary energy requirements (FAO, 2016). Despite a reduction in the number of undernourished people in the world in recent decades (from 23.3% in 1990-92 to 12.9% in 2015), 795 million people (1 person in every 9) are still suffering from starvation today (FAO, 2016). However, recently there has been less progress in developing regions owing to slower and less inclusive economic growth as well as to a certain amount of political instability in some regions, particularly in Central Africa and West Asia. Furthermore, the FAO is detecting even more instances of significant stunted growth and insufficient body weight in the world because of inadequate nutritional intake. Hence there is still much to be done to ensure that everyone has access to a good quality diet providing the vitamins and nutrients they need to survive.

Various factors explaining starvation around the world

Various factors, often interlinked, explain why there is starvation in the world. Drought is often the most frequent cause of undernourishment. Some regions such as the Sahel, southern parts of Africa, Arabia, the Gobi Desert, Kazakhstan and Australia are particularly vulnerable to drought as rainfall is rare (sometimes less than 100 mm of water per year). Other parts of the world are susceptible to extremely heavy rainfall, such as Bangladesh, which experienced a devastating flood in 1974. Lack of food can also be the consequence of outbreaks of animal or plant disease. Blight, for example, destroyed a large proportion of the potato crop in Ireland during the 19th century. Similarly, a colony of locusts devastated Sahel cereal crops in 1974. Apart from environmental disasters, wars can also wipe out areas of vegetation, crops and livestock, thus affecting food supplies. During the Vietnam War, for example, the widespread use of herbicides and defoliants by the Americans devastated natural areas. Blockades during the Second World War also caused multiple food shortages. In peace time, certain governments sometimes limit food supplies to establish their political will. Moreover, many developing countries lack agricultural infrastructure, thereby limiting land yield and access to food. People living in poverty, especially in rural regions, are more susceptible to starvation. Furthermore, fluctuations in food prices often force them to consume cheaper and less nutritious food.

Undernutrition and malnutrition

Prolonged undernourishment or poor absorption and assimilation of nutrients can cause undernutrition which is noticeable when underweight for one’s age, too short for one’s age (stunted growth), dangerously thin for one’s height (wasting) and deficient in vitamins and minerals. Malnutrition is an abnormal physiological condition caused by inadequate, unbalanced or excessive consumption of macronutrients and/or micronutrients. In this sense, malnutrition includes both undernutrition and overnutrition as well as micronutrient deficiencies (FAO, 2016).