The number of people suffering from malnutrition worldwide rose to 815 million in 2016, rising by 38 million from the year before. According to a new report co-signed by five United Nations agencies and charities, and made public by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAOUN) on Friday, this was the first such year-to-year increase in a century.

The development of science and technology, and their spread around the world in the form of gigantic increases in food production, have made possible a century-long reduction in the number suffering from hunger and malnutrition. In 2016, the world produced more than enough food to provide an adequate and nutritious diet to every human being on the planet.

But these gains are now increasingly offset by war and the impact of climate change, according to the UN report. Another factor—on which the UN report is largely silent—is the impact of mounting economic inequality, which means that in both comparatively wealthy and poor countries, many people are too poor to purchase the food that exists in abundance.


The five agencies involved in the study are the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the World Food Programme, and UNICEF. As is typically the case in such reports, the language is deliberately restrained and the approach cautious and incremental, even when addressing what can only be described as a social catastrophe.

In 2016, for example, an estimated 155 million children younger than five were classified as “stunted,” too short for their age, because their physical development lagged significantly because of lack of food. Some 52 million children were considered undernourished, not heavy enough for their height. One-third of the population of eastern Africa, and one-fifth of the population of the entire continent, were undernourished. In Asia, 12 percent of the population were undernourished, mainly in South and Southeast Asia.

The report warns that significant progress in reducing malnutrition worldwide, from the level of 900 million people in the year 2000, is now in danger of being reversed. In just the last year, chronic undernourishment surged to an “extreme level” worldwide. Famine was declared in South Sudan in February. Yemen, northeast Nigeria, and Somalia teeter on the edge of famine.

The number of chronically undernourished people rose to 815 million in 2016—a number greater than the population of the entire European continent. Of that number, 489 million, 60 percent, live in countries affected by war or civil conflict.

The foreword to the report states that not only have conflicts “risen dramatically in number” over the past decade, but they have “become more complex and intractable in nature.” The residents of countries in conflict zones are almost two-and-a-half times more likely to be undernourished than those in other countries. In South Sudan, severe food insecurity afflicts around 4.9 million people—over 42 percent of the population.

In Yemen, 60 percent of the population—an estimated 17 million people—suffer from severe food insecurity. This number represents a 47 percent increase from June of 2015. Pediatric malnutrition has been “a serious problem for a long time” in Yemen, according to the report. However, acute undernutrition, or wasting, has risen sharply in the past three years. The report cites “the conflict-induced, economy-wide crisis that is affecting the entire population.”

War and internal conflict create food insecurity in myriad ways. One is through population displacement. According to the FAOUN report, the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) has “increased significantly along with the greater number of conflicts,” doubling from 2007 to 2016 to a total of 64 million people.

One out of every 113 human beings is currently a refugee, an IDP, or seeking asylum. An estimated 70 million people worldwide are likely to suffer undernourishment as a result of displacement.

War also exacts heavy tolls on agriculture and food distribution systems, “from production, harvesting, processing and transport to input supply, financing and marketing,” states the report. In Iraq, for example, prior to the 2003 US invasion, the Nineveh and Salah-al Din districts produced a third of the country’s wheat and 40 percent of its barley. Yet by February 2016, 70-80 percent of Salah al-Din’s grain cultivations were damaged or destroyed; in Nineveh, which includes the city of Mosul, 32-68 percent of the land used for wheat cultivation had been either compromised or destroyed, as well as 43-57 percent of the land used to cultivate barley.

In Syria, where agriculture once thrived—and where many scientists believe it originated historically—six years of attempted regime change by the United States have devastated the country’s cultivation. Eighty-five percent of Syrians now live in poverty. An estimated 6.7 million faced acute food insecurity in 2016. Acute malnutrition—wasting—is currently seen at increased levels in most areas.

One of the most insidious ways that conflict drives undernourishment lies in “food … being used as a weapon of war.” The report mentions the use of trade blockades in South Sudan. It notably fails to mention the Saudi-led blockade against Yemen, where imported grains supply the bulk of the population’s nutrition.

Conflict is not the only source of undernourishment, as the FAOUN report makes clear. Climate extremes have led to sharp increases in food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as Southwest and Southeast Asia.

In addition, as the World Socialist Website has reported in the past, diseases of malnutrition are once again on the rise in developed countries such as the United States and Great Britain. In these countries, it is not uncommon to find occurrences of morbid obesity alongside undernourishment in a single family. As wages stagnate and food prices continue to increase, many people can only afford heavily processed, starchy foods. Such products are more profitable for companies to supply, because they are less prone to spoilage and are therefore cheaper to transport and store.

This is a burgeoning health crisis, as the report points out: “food insecurity and poor nutrition during pregnancy and childhood are associated with metabolic adaptations that increase the risk of obesity and associated non-communicable chronic diseases in adulthood.”

As the report’s authors say, the results of the UN’s assessments have “set off alarm bells we cannot afford to ignore.” However, while the UN rightly points out that conflict engenders undernourishment, it blatantly omits the role that imperialism plays in these conflicts. It classifies the conflicts in South Sudan and Syria as internal conflicts, when, in fact, the chaos in both countries has been directly caused by the United States, its allies, and its proxies. It even fails to mention the United States at all in its assessment of Iraq, invaded, laid waste to and occupied by US military forces from 2003 to 2011, and still a battleground.

The report’s authors suppress any mention of the Saudi-led coalition’s attacks upon Yemen, as well as US complicity in those attacks; in many instances, the coalition has blocked humanitarian aid organizations from entering the country, and it has bombed numerous hospitals and mobile clinics. But the report details the same crimes at some length when perpetrated by “warring factions” in South Sudan.

Largely ignored are the long-range, ever more obvious effects of manmade climate change. No critique is leveled against the corrosive social effects of the profit motive, which is responsible for both climate change and the dearth of affordable nutrition in developed countries.

The worldwide capitalist crisis threatens new, more lethal wars. The imperialist nations cannot address food insecurity, not only because they have caused it with their militarism and unchecked industrial pollution, but because they are fundamentally incapable of solving their own contradictions. Even as this report was released, unprecedentedly violent hurricanes submerged entire cities, displaced thousands, and claimed lives throughout the American Gulf Coast and the Caribbean.

Global hunger can only be eradicated by putting an end to the contradictions of capitalism and replacing it with an economic system based upon social need. The UN may sound the alarm bell about widespread undernourishment, but only the struggle of a united international working class can put an end to it.

Originally published in

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  1. Nicholas C Arguimbau says:

    The writer say, “Global hunger can only be eradicated by putting an end to the contradictions of capitalism and replacing it with an economic system based upon social need. ”

    Given the extreme maldistribution of wealth in the worl, the writer has to be corect – double the income of the lowest 10% and the upper 10% would hardly feel it. But let’s not forget that “putting an end to the contradictions of capitalism” will only temporarily solve the problem. ………….grain production has for decades been gowing slower than the population and it will soon be impossible to feed the world even if wealth disparities disappeart. Because of a combination of decreasung ability to increase crop yields, disappearing ability to find new land to cultivate, exhaustion of groundwater aquifers throughout the worlld and the increasing instability of food production and destruction of fisheries related to climate change, peak food production willreach us in 2030 or before, and with it famine and peak population.

    In short, “putting an end to the contradictions of capitalism” is a necessary requirement for ending hunger, it is not sufficient

    Nicholas C. Arguimbau

  2. Sally Dugman says:

    I have said time and again that people need to start food banks and soup kitchens. If Janet can start one of the biggest food banks in the USA with $5,000 USD and a donated closet to store food, then others can do the same action. … Putting Food On All Tables | Countercurrents

    The problem as I see it is that we are breeding as a species out of control. We will have resource deficits, including water and food deficits, increasingly over time.How about when the population hits 11 to 15.8 billion by century’s end? … Let’s pretend that with climate change and other factors, these many humans could be hypothetically fed. Then what — does it climb to 30 billion as a result? Then what happens?

    Here are some quotations from Norman Borlaug, who received a Nobel prize for his work in green revolution:

    Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the ‘Population Monster.’

    There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.

    If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species.

    Norman Borlaug, while accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1970, said: “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”

    According to Frosty Wooldridge: [People] ” … discount the eminent Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. I met this brilliant, articulate biologist and Stanford professor. He said, “All causes are lost causes without limiting human population.” Again, while his timing proved off, his science remains impeccable. In fact, his predictions of 180 million starvation deaths since 1965 turned out to be 300 million. Each year 18 million humans die of starvation or related diseases—what do naysayers do with that math?

    “As the world population adds 10,000 babies net gain per hour, 240,000 per day and 80 million annually, we race inextricably toward planetary disaster on multiple levels. Why? This planet cannot support nor sustain its current human numbers. Our environment breaks down all over the globe. I can name countless growing symptoms of the breakdown: species extinction of over 80-100 creatures daily (Source: Norman Meyers, UK); toxic rain and rivers acidifying the oceans, 100 million sharks being killed by humans annually (Source: OnEarth Magazine, Julia Whitty), drift netting, fisheries collapsing, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, ocean dead zones, polar caps melting, ozone destruction, 80,000 human chemicals wreaking havoc with nature, top soil erosion, toxified soils, vanishing lakes, ad nausea.

    “But then you hear individuals or what Colorado University’s Dr. Albert Bartlett calls ‘innumerates’, (intellectually credentialed persons that remain mathematically illiterate), tell us that the whole human race can live in the State of Texas. Bartlett’s ( worldwide reputation as one of the finest population experts provides us with unequaled understanding of our predicament with his video: “Arithmetic, population and energy.” Most folks fail to understand ‘exponential growth’ on a finite planet cannot continue. That fact they slither away from when confronted. The reason these innumerates exist stems from the human tendency to use ego defenses, when information unsettles them; denial, rationalization, suppression, projection, et al. A prime example: the Pope in 1600 jailed Galileo for daring to state that Earth rotated around the sun. “How absurd!” said the Pope.”

    So another way to look at our growing dilemma is this: Kenneth Boulding — “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

    So emotionally brace yourself for the coming food and water wars. Psychologically brace yourself for even more hunger and malnutrition deaths in times to come. It could be no other way given that nobody is adequately dealing with humanity’s growing population problem.

  3. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Increase of hunger may also indicate increase in levels of poverty and rising gap between wealthy persons/ countries and poor people/ countries. This may also lead to intense struggles between rich and poor.