CARACAS — Tens of millions are going hungry in Latin America and the Caribbean as the COVID-19 pandemic sharpens a regional malnutrition crisis to its worst levels in decades, according to the United Nations.
In just one year — from 2019 to 2020 — the number of people living with hunger in the region rose by 30 percent, or 13.8 million people, a new United Nations Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition report said.
While the coronavirus poses its own health threat, the pandemic’s economic fallout has also meant empty cupboards. Months of lockdowns and travel restrictions hit informal jobs in particular, in a region where missing work one day can mean having little to eat the next.
Women are going hungrier than men across the region, the UN found, as food insecurity disproportionately affects the most vulnerable people in society.
In 2020, approximately 42 percent of women experienced moderate or severe food insecurity, compared with 32 percent of men. That disparity has consistently widened in recent years, the report said, with a spike from 6.4 percent to 9.6 percent in the first year of the pandemic.
Julio Berdegué, regional representative for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called the overall situation “critical,” adding that the pandemic had dramatically intensified existing food insecurity.
The UN report calculates that 59.7 million people in the region are now suffering from hunger — the highest level since 2000.
In recent years, various factors have diverted the world off the path to eradicating hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition by 2030, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend. Latin America and the Caribbean is no exception.
This edition of the Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2021: Statistics and Trends reveals a bleak scenario for the future. In 2020, 59.7 million people in the region suffered from hunger, and between 2019 and 2020 the prevalence of hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean increased by two percentage points.
Much of this can be explained by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which reduced the incomes of millions of people in the region. But it is not behind all the setbacks, as the region’s hunger figures have been growing for six consecutive years.
Food and Hunger
Food is central to people’s development throughout their lives. Hunger and poverty impede the enjoyment of fundamental rights.
In recent years, various factors have diverted the world off the path to eradicating hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition by 2030, as part of the Sustainable Development Agenda. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend, and our region is no exception.
This edition of the Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition 2021: Statistics and Trends reveals a bleak scenario for the future of the region. In 2020, 59.7 million people suffered from hunger. Between 2019 and 2020, the prevalence of hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean increased by 2 percentage points, meaning 13.8 million more people suffered from hunger than in 2019.
Over the same period, moderate or severe food insecurity increases were even steeper at 9 percentage points. Forty-one percent of the population of the region is moderately or severely food insecure, which translates to 267 million people whose human right to food is not being met.
There is no doubt that much of this can be attributed to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which reduced the incomes of millions of people in the region. However, the pandemic alone is not responsible for all these setbacks, as the regional statistics for hunger have been increasing for six consecutive years.
In the region, one in four adults suffers from obesity. Childhood overweight has been increasing over the last 20 years and is greater than the global average affecting 7.5 percent of children under five years in 2020. Overweight and obesity have significant economic, social and health impacts on countries as they lead to reduced productivity and increased disability, premature mortality, and to increased medical care and treatment costs.
The statistics indicate that we are going backwards in the fight against hunger. We have returned to the levels of 15 years ago, and we are losing the battle against all forms of malnutrition. Much remains to be done to ensure a healthy diet for the entire population throughout their lives.
If we do not make rapid and substantial changes, the countries of the region will fail to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” and SDG 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.”
We cannot reverse these trends unless we transform our agri-food systems to make them efficient, resilient, inclusive and sustainable enough to provide a healthy diet for everyone, leaving no one behind. That was the aim of the United Nations Food Systems Summit held in September of 2021, convened by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, which brought together 23 Member States from Latin America and the Caribbean to discuss how to bring about a transformation that would benefit the most vulnerable communities.
The goal of the five United Nations agencies behind this publication is to contribute to the agri-food systems transformation by measuring and monitoring food and nutrition security indicators to promote the formulation and implementation of evidence-based policies with an agri-food systems approach.
The data and findings included in this publication will contribute to the policy dialogue for post-pandemic recovery, which is fundamental to closing gaps in equality and meeting the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Julio A. Berdegué
Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Carissa F. Etienne
Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Regional Director for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO)
Regional Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations for Latin America and the Caribbean
Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Latin America and the Caribbean
Regional Director of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for Latin America and the Caribbean