Action needed to combat hunger

The United Nations reckons that 2 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the last 25 years. Even though the global population marked a 50 percent increase from 1990 to 2017, growing from 5 billion people to 7.5 billion people, the number of people counting as living in “low human development” plummeted, falling from 3 billion to 926 million, or from 60 percent of the world’s population to a mere 12 percent. That is a development that should be applauded.

Despite those impressive gains, however, the number of people suffering from hunger has increased. According to the annual U.N. report “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” food insecurity has risen for three years in a row and reached an “alarming” 10-year high last year. It is estimated that 821 million people suffers from chronic food shortages. That is an increase from 804 million people in 2016 and is roughly the same number of people who were hungry a decade ago. In other words, many of the gains of the last few decades have been erased as hunger spreads once again.

The report blames climate change for much of the reversal. Extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, heat and storms have doubled since the early 1990s. As the authors note, “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 tally is revealing: 51 countries faced food crises in 2017, and 34 of them experienced climate shocks.

The impact is broad and multidimensional. Changing weather patterns affect crop yields, which in turn changes food availability. Some harvests are lost or reduced. And even when the loss of arable land is replaced by gains elsewhere, the transition takes time and can be devastating for local communities. The report notes that hunger is significantly worse in countries where agriculture is sensitive to variations in climate and where agriculture is central to lives and livelihoods. That is because those communities have to spend more time and money — which they have lost — to procure their own food. Hunger among agricultural workers depresses their output as well, further exacerbating losses.

Especially alarming is the persistent and growing number of young children who suffer from hunger. The report concludes that nearly 151 million children under the age of 5, or nearly one-quarter (22 percent) of the world’s total, experience stunted growth as a result of poor nutrition. Those children will be permanently scarred by that experience. Shortages during the critical development phase of their lives cannot be compensated for. Childhood hunger is a lifetime sentence.

The U.N. report also identifies conflict as a second powerful contributor to chronic hunger. It notes that hunger is “closely associated” with conflict and violence and “efforts to fight hunger must go hand in hand with those to sustain peace.” Another report, released last month by the international nonprofit organization Save the Children, concluded that 4.5 million children under the age of 5 in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones will need treatment for life-threatening malnutrition in 2018, a nearly 20 percent increase in two years. The group estimates that one-seventh that number — 590,000 severely malnourished children — will die this year from lack of treatment. That is the equivalent of one child dying from hunger every minute every day.

For Japan, this is mostly a distant problem. U.N. statistics invariably put this country in the lowest category of children in need. Still, it is estimated that 3.5 million Japanese children live in households that the OECD defines as experiencing relative poverty (at or below half the median national disposable income). Japan’s relative rate of poverty has crept up over the last 30 years to hit 16.1 percent in 2012. That is not extreme, but it is too high.

Japan supports the Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is zero hunger by 2030. It has worked with the U.N. to build infrastructure for agriculture around the world, helped boost resilience and mitigate risks to food production and endeavored to reduce food waste in Southeast Asia. Japan has convened since 1993 the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which brings together African leaders, donor countries and U.N. agencies; several meetings have focused on combating effects of climate change. The Japan International Cooperation Agency has promoted the Initiative for Food and Nutrition Security in Africa and supported the Coalition for African Rice Development initiative, which aims to double rice production.

Much more needs to be done. Work must be done to support resilience of agricultural communities, to develop early warning systems, emergency preparedness and response, and vulnerability reduction measures. This is just the start, however. Ultimately, many are hungry because they are marginalized and poor. Inequality — both political and economic — must be reduced.