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In this file photo taken on June 27, 2019 a woman holds a malnourished child receiving treatment at a hospital in the Yemeni port city of Hodeida. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The world’s hungry rose to more 820 million people last year, according to a United Nations report that highlights issues of improper nutrition and economic inequality.

Last year was the third consecutive year hunger increased, following a decline over several decades. War, climate change and troubled economies were among the key reasons behind the gain, according to the report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation, and other agencies.

While technology has connected and globalised the world’s economies, many countries have failed to enjoy sustained growth as a result, the report said. Armed conflicts are also on the increase, while climate change is hurting agricultural productivity and harming rural people especially, it said.

Ending world hunger will require fostering “inclusive structural transformation” to reduce the economic vulnerability of people and communities, leaders of the UN groups said in a statement.

Undernourished

More than half a million people in Asia are undernourished, mostly in southern Asian countries, according to the report. Africa and Asia account for more than nine out of ten of all children stunted or wasted by hunger worldwide.

More than a quarter of the world’s population also struggles to eat “safe, nutritious and sufficient food”, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 report.

That includes about 8 per cent of people in Europe and North America, according to the annual study, which for the first time includes people affected by “moderate food insecurity” as well as outright hunger.

“We need to look beyond hunger,” said Cindy Holleman, senior economist at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the report’s editor.

“If we just focus on hunger, we’re going to be missing a lot of the growing problems we’re seeing.” Moderate food insecurity affects people who have had to reduce the quality or quantity of what they eat due to lack of money or other resources.

Obesity

It can lead to obesity as well as stunting — a condition that permanently affects children’s mental and physical development.

The findings show governments need to pay more attention to different aspects of food availability instead of just focusing on producing more, said the director-general of the FAO, which compiled the report with four other UN agencies.

“Governments are very much oriented to the production side.

They believe that if there is food available, people will eat.

In a way, that’s not true,” Jose Graziano da Silva told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We are not looking at the distribution, the markets, the behaviour of the people, the culture of the people.” The new data reflects the fact that there are now more obese people in the world than hungry ones — although it also shows that the number of hungry people increased in 2018 for the third year running.

Hunger is on the rise in most of Africa, in parts of the Middle East and in Latin America and the Caribbean, the report said.

Climate shocks

“Furthermore, economic shocks are contributing to prolonging and worsening the severity of food crises caused primarily by conflict and climate shocks,” it added.

The report said there were 822 million obese people in 2016, the most recent year for which figures were available, when 796.5 million were undernourished. Nutritionists have said obesity figures are likely to have increased further since then.

“Obesity is out of control,” said Graziano da Silva, who likened the situation to the beginning of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s when high-yielding seeds, fertilisers and irrigation helped stave off famine in hungry parts of the world.

“We were anticipating big hunger in Asia. Now, we are anticipating a big crisis due to the rise of obesity. And this trend takes more time and is more complex [to resolve] than hunger.”