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Displaced people receive food aid and supplies at a camp in the war-ravaged western province of Hodeida, Yemen, on July 6.KHALED ZIAD/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations’ zero-hunger goal by 2030 is probably no longer within reach as climate change, war, economic shocks and the pandemic increased world hunger rates for the third year in a row.

The latest edition of the UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition report, produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and four other UN agencies, reported that as many as 828 million people, or nearly 10 per cent of the world’s population, were affected by hunger in 2021.

The figure was 46 million higher than in 2020 and 150 million higher than in 2019, the year before the pandemic began. The latest tally does not include the effects of the war in Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil.

David Beasley, the American executive-director of the World Food Programme, used a video appearance at a UN event Wednesday to launch the report and to warn that the war in Ukraine threatened to raise hunger levels by alarming rates.

“In early 2022, we were already facing a perfect storm from the combined effects of conflict, climate change and COVID’s economic ripple effects, and soaring global inflation,” he said. “And just when you think it can’t get any worse … boom! Ukraine happens, the breadbasket of the world.”

He said that the number of chronically hungry people is “likely already much higher” than the one published in the UN report. Soaring prices for food, fuel and fertilizers – the direct result of the war – could push several countries into outright famine. Food shortages could trigger starvation in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, the UN has said.

Shortages of fertilizers are already hurting crop yields as far away as Costa Rica and Malaysia, which are big buyers of Russian and Ukrainian fertilizers. Russia has blockaded the Black Sea ports still under Ukrainian control.

The UN food security report showed that virtually all numbers were going in the wrong direction. “Severe food insecurity increased globally and in every region,” said Máximo Torero Cullen, FAO’s chief economist. “The world is moving backwards.”

The number of people who were food insecure, meaning they lacked regular access to adequate supplies of healthy food, climbed to 2.3 billion in 2021 – 350 million higher than before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. More than 900 million faced severe food insecurity, meaning they had run short of food at times, forcing them to skip meals on some days. That is an increase of more than 200 million in two years.

The gender gap is also widening. Last year, 31.9 per cent of women around the world were moderately or severely food insecure, compared with 27.6 per cent of men. The male-female gap has widened to more than four percentage points from three points in 2020.

The UN estimated that 45 million children under age five suffered from wasting, the most severe form of malnutrition that increases the risk of death by up to 12 times. Almost 150 million children had stunted growth owing to chronic lack of essential nutrients.

In 2015, the UN launched the Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the goal of ending all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030. That goal is now severely off track. The UN’s food security report said that 670 million people, or 8 per cent of the world’s population, will still face hunger that year – essentially unchanged since 2015 – even if an economic recovery is taken into consideration.

Climate change, mentioned often in the report, and its effect on crop yields is one of the big unknowns in the decade ahead. The UN report said that “climate variability and extremes are a key driver behind the recent rise in global hunger, one of the leading causes of severe food crises and a contributing factor to the alarming levels of malnutrition in recent years.”

No country is immune to the effects of climate change.

Italy, one of the most agriculturally productive countries in Europe, this week declared a state of emergency in five northern regions owing to a severe heat wave and the worst drought in 70 years. Several cities and towns have announced water restrictions as levels plummet in the River Po, the north’s largest reservoir.

Coldiretti, Italy’s largest agriculture association, said that drought threatens more than 30 per cent of national agriculture production. Portugal is experiencing its second-worst drought since 1931. The Portuguese government said that rainfall has declined by 15 per cent in the past 20 years as temperatures rise and weather patterns change.

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