Hunger in Times of Plenty

According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, some 811 million people, almost one in ten, are currently undernourished, regularly not getting enough food in order to lead an active and healthy life. At the same time, agriculture is producing more food than ever before, both in total numbers as well as on a per capita basis, despite the fact that the world population is growing. If the harvest was used entirely and as effectively as possible as food, it could already feed 12 to 14 billion people.
The changeable history of the fight against hunger is as old as humanity whose populations had to adapt again and again to changing environmental conditions, epidemics and other adversities. For the first time since the beginnings of agriculture, humanity now has the means at its disposal to overcome world hunger.

At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, heads of state and government solemnly vowed to halve the number of people suffering from hunger to 425 million by 2015. The United Nations had already declared food an inalienable human right in 1948. However, today, people affected by hunger still do not have effective means of enforcing their right to adequate food and freedom from hunger. If they really wanted to, all governments worldwide could ensure that their citizens have enough to eat. A few countries would have to accept temporary foreign aid for this purpose. India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, however, where more than half of the world’s hungry live, do certainly not belong to these countries.

Global hunger statistics: flexible curves and goals

The global number of undernourished people published by FAO each year refers to a 3-year average and is based on complex assumptions and calculations, as well as national statistics of different quality and independence. Many of these assumptions have proved to be highly flexible. In 2009, the FAO warned that more than a billion people were suffering from hunger; in 2010 the number was 925 million. In 2011, the FAO revised its methodology. The number of undernourished then dropped to 868 million people, reaching 795 million in 2015. The goal of the 1996 World Food Summit of halving, between 1990 and 2015, the absolute number of people who suffer from hunger remained unattainable, whereas the Millennium Development Goal was narrowly missed. It was cunningly adapted only to halve, within the same period, the proportion of undernourished people, while the world population has grown by 2 billion people since 1990. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 now aims at ending all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

The updated FAO method now captures food losses but also assumes that people, on global average, are less physically active and somewhat smaller, and that distribution inequalities are less marked than previously thought. These and other assumptions changed, as if by magic, the curves depicting the number of hungry people, which no longer tended upwards but downwards. The most important basis for the calculation of the number of undernourished is the daily energy requirement of a person. The FAO assumes a “sedentary lifestyle”, which is common in the case of office work. On global average, the minimum dietary energy requirement (MDER) for this lifestyle is 1844 kilocalories per day. If the calculations were based on a “normal lifestyle” - and in this case a minimum of 2023 kilocalories - the number of undernourished would have zealed from 842 to 1297 billion people, or from 805 to 1210 billion if the FAO estimates for the period 2012-2014 are considered.  >>more

Facts & Figures

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the estimated total number of undernourished people in the world reached  between 720 and 811 million people in 2020. Considering the middle of the projected range (768 million), 118 million more people were facing hunger in 2020 than in the previous year. The vast majority of hungry people live in developing regions.

54.4% of the world’s hungry or 418 million people live in Asia, followed by Africa, home to 36.7% (281.6 million people) of the world’s undernourished population, and Latin America and the Caribbean (7.8% or 59.7 million people). The highest prevalence of undernourishment was found in Africa, where 21% of the total population was undernourished. In Eastern Africa, the figure was even at 28.1%.

Despite progress in reducing hunger, the nutrition situation in 47 of 117 countries ranked in the 2019 Global Hunger Index remains “serious” (43 countries) or “alarming” (4 countries). The Central African Republic suffers from extremely alarming levels of hunger. For Burundi and other likely hunger hot spots, such as Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Libya, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, reliable data is lacking. The index combines four indicators (undernourishment, child wasting and stunting and child mortality).

Around 113 million people in 53 countries worldwide faced acute hunger in 2018 and their lives were in immediate danger. Despite the slight decrease from 124 million acutely food-insecure people in 2017, more than 100 million people have faced periods of acute hunger over the past three years. An additional 143 million people in another 42 countries were just one step away from acute hunger.

Agriculture produces a third more calories than are needed to feed the entire world population. Per capita food availability rose from about 2,716 calories per person per day at the turn of the millennium to 2,908 calories in 2016-2018. Even the least developed countries recorded an increase from 2,083 calories per person per day to 2,336 in the same period.

In 2017, world cereal production reached a record output of 2,650 million tonnes, up 15% from 2,305 million in 2012. Despite this record-breaking harvest, only 43% was used to feed people, 36% was used for animal feed and the remainder for other uses such as seed, industrial non-food and waste.

In 2019, 144 million children worldwide - or almost one in five children (21.3%) - were stunted due to chronic malnutrition. Asia and Africa accounted for 54% and 40% of all stunted children respectively. An estimated 47 million children under the age of five suffered from wasting due to acute malnutrion. In 2019, more than two thirds (69%) of all wasted children lived in Asia.

In 2018, approximately 5.3 million children worldwide died before reaching their fifth birthday. On average, 15,000 children died every day in 2018, compared to 34,000 in 1990 and 27,000 in 2000. Globally, nutrition-related factors contribute to about 45% of deaths in children under the age of five.

In May 2018, the FAO Food Price Index stood at 176 points. This means that basic food stuffs are cheaper as during the food price crisis in 2008 (226 points in June) and the index is far away from the historic peak of 240 points in February 2011. However, food prices never got back to pre-crisis levels.

In 2017, 15 million US households (or 11.8%) were what the Department of Agriculture calls "food insecure". That means that at some time during the year they had difficulty providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. Around 5.8 million households or 4.5% had "very low food security". In those homes, the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources.


Civil Society

  • Farmlandgrab Food Crisis and the global land grab - news about the rush to buy up or lease farmlands
  • FIAN Human rights organisation advocating for the right to food
  • Food First US-based NGO with the mission to eliminate the injustices that cause hunger
  • Food Tank is showcasing environmentally sustainable ways to alleviate hunger, obesity and poverty
  • Oxfam's Grow campaign to help build a future where everyone always has enough to eat
  • ActionAid UK-based NGO whose aim is to fight hunger worldwide through work with small-scale farmers
  • The Development Fund supports small scale farmers in their fight against hunger and poverty


Videos: Hunger in Times of Plenty

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How to feed the world explained in simple language


  • UNEP Food LostUNEP Food Lost
  • UNEP 4 409 watermdghungerUNEP 4 409 watermdghunger
  • UNEP Dietary Changes 1964-2030UNEP Dietary Changes 1964-2030
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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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