While the world’s population has doubled from 4 to 8 billion over the past fifty years, global food production has more than tripled. Nevertheless, worrisome food consumption extremes have persisted with many people not having enough to eat and suffering malnutrition while many others are eating too much and suffering from obesity.
Close to one billion people, or nearly 12 percent of the world’s population, faced severe levels of food insecurity in 2022. Food insecurity is a situation when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth, development, and healthy lives.
A similar proportion of the world’s population, about 13 percent or more than one billion people, were obese in 2022, defined as a body mass index (BMI) over 30. Also, an additional 26 percent of the world’s population, or about 2 billion people, were overweight, defined as a BMI over 25 (Figure 1).
Source: World Health Organization and World Food Programme
In general, the root cause of food insecurity and malnutrition is poverty which inhibits access to food. In many countries, food insecurity is substantially worsened by armed conflict, violence and political instability. It is estimated that about 70 percent of the world’s hungry people are living in areas affected by war and violence.
In addition, approximately 14 percent of food produced worldwide is lost between harvest and retail and 17 percent of total global food production is estimated to be wasted in households, food service and retail.
The devastating consequences of the climate crisis and environmental degradation have also been undermining the ability of people to feed themselves. The recent flooding and droughts, especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia, have contributed to raising the levels of acute food insecurity and creating “hunger hotspots”.
The Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s led to substantial increases in food production globally. At the same time, however, the world population continued to grow relatively rapidly, doubling from 4 billion in 1974 to 8 billion in 2023.
Over the recent past, the number of people facing severe food shortages has also increased rapidly. Since 2014, the number of people going hungry and suffering from food insecurity has been gradually rising, with one in eight people in the world now facing severe food insecurity.
Moreover, in 2020, approximately 2.4 billion people, or 30 percent of the world’s population, lacked regular access to adequate food. In addition, it is estimated that more than 20 percent of children under 5 years of age, or about 150 million children globally, were suffering from stunting, i.e., low height for their age. The COVID-19 pandemic increased food insecurity and exacerbated malnutrition, especially among children. The war in Ukraine further disrupted food supply chains and contributed to the global food crisis.
In 2022, the production of maize, rice, soybean and wheat declined. In addition, as food, fertilizers and fuel prices have increased considerably over the past several years, the cost of delivering food assistance has reached an all-time high.
The current worldwide trends in food insecurity and malnutrition, especially in areas that are also experiencing rapid population growth, are troubling and portend increasing levels of hunger in the years ahead. Consequently, the international community’s promised Sustainable Development Goal 2 to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition by 2030 is not likely to be achieved.
Among the countries with the lowest levels of food security are many rapidly growing populations in sub-Saharan Africa, including the D.R. of Congo, Nigeria and Sudan. The populations of many of those African nations are expected to double by around the middle of the century. In addition, some of the lowest levels of food security are being experienced in war-torn or politically divided countries, such as Haiti, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen (Figure 2).
Source: Global Food Security Index 2022
Other countries facing serious food shortages include Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan. In order to avoid descending into famine, many of those countries rely on international food assistance.
However, in some instances, such as Ethiopia where 20 million people rely on donated relief, food assistance is being curtailed. The United States, which is Ethiopia’s largest aid supplier with an annual contribution of one billion U.S. dollars in food, suspended the provision of food assistance in June due to a countrywide misappropriation by Ethiopian government officials to divert food aid.
In striking contrast to countries with food shortages and hunger, the highest levels of food security, which are well above the lowest levels, are observed among the wealthier, more stable developed countries with relatively slow-growing populations. At the top of the food security rankings are many European nations as well as Canada, Japan and the U.S.
The other food consumption extreme is obesity, whose consequences on health include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Those consequences can cause substantial disability and long-term suffering for individuals and their families as well as being among the leading causes of preventable, premature death.
Among the primary causes of obesity are overeating, poor diet choices, lack of physical activity, metabolism, genetics, and culture. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), obesity is largely preventable by focusing on key behaviors aimed at achieving an energy balance between calories consumed and calories used.
Reducing obesity prevalence centers basically on modifying food and beverage consumption habits to healthy eating and drinking behavior across all ages, including among the young. However, some, especially those with low income, can’t afford or have limited access to those foods for a healthy diet.
Among the chief recommendations to reduce obesity are for men and women as well as children to decrease their intake of fats, sugars, sweets, red and processed meats, and sugary drinks, and to increase their consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains.
Also, to increase calories expended, people are advised to limit sit-down time. Other recommendations include boosting moderate-intensity physical activity to at least 30 minutes per day and reducing stress levels.
Also, countries need to create better food environments so that healthy diets are both accessible and affordable. Community and social organizations can promote and encourage healthy diets and regular exercise among households and schools can teach children healthy eating and drinking habits.
Worldwide obesity prevalence has nearly tripled since 1975. In addition, no country has seen its rates decline over the past five decades.
About 13 percent of adults worldwide were obese in 2022 with rates also rising among children and adolescents. The prevalence of obesity is even higher across OECD countries where on average approximately 20 percent of the adult population is obese.
The highest levels of obesity, however, are reported among the relatively small populations of the island nations in the South Pacific. The majority of the adults are obese in Nauru, Cook Islands, Palau, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu and no less than 46 percent of adults are obese in Niue, Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati and Micronesia.
Among developed countries with large populations, the United States has the highest prevalence of obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 42 percent of American adults aged 20 years and older were obese in 2020, which is twice the prevalence three decades ago.
Following the U.S., obesity levels of approximately 30 percent are reported in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, with an OECD average of 25 percent. In contrast, the lowest adult obesity rates of about 6 percent are observed in Japan and South Korea (Figure 3).
Obesity levels can also vary considerably within countries among economic and social subpopulations. In the United States, for example, men and women with college degrees have lower obesity prevalence compared to those with less education. Also, among U.S. men obesity prevalence was lower in the lowest and highest income groups compared with the middle-income group.
In the years ahead, the numbers of people facing food insecurity are expected to rise given that much of the world’s population growth will be occurring in countries with high levels of food insecurity. Also based on current trends, today’s level of obesity of about 13 percent is expected to increase markedly in the coming years, possibly reaching one-quarter of the world’s population in 2035.
In sum, the levels of food insecurity and obesity are not only high and worrisome today but are expected to also pose serious challenges increasingly for the future.