2.4 billion hungry lives: The new face of urban food insecurity

The latest FAO report explores the links between urbanisation and affordability of healthy diets.

Published : Aug 24, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Food is distributed to daily wage workers and poor people outside a temple in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. India ranked 107 out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index (GHI).  

Food is distributed to daily wage workers and poor people outside a temple in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. India ranked 107 out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index (GHI).   | Photo Credit: V. SUDERSHAN

The latest Food and Agriculture Organisation report on food insecurity states that most of the food consumed across the rural-urban continuum is purchased from markets. What people ate was determined by cost and affordability, which in turn depended on agrifood systems, food supply and value-added chains. The rural-urban divide was no longer useful to understand the links across urban, peri-urban (less than one-hour travel to large, intermediate and small cities) and rural areas.

Food insecurity is also no longer a predominantly rural problem. The report titled “The State of Food Security and Nurtition in the World 2023” assesses the food situation of 2022 and is a collaborative effort involving the World Food Program, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organisation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

A presupposition in the report is that things went from bad to worse in the backdrop of COVID-19 and the Ukraine-Russia conflict, more so for the low and middle income countries. Although global hunger had reduced because of economic recovery in the post-pandemic phase, it still remained above pre-pandemic levels. Disposable incomes were low under the persisting impact of the pandemic, inflation was high and food cost was rising.

Food insecurity is defined as the short-term inability to meet dietary requirements. Chronic Undernourishment is defined as the long-term or persistent inability to meet minimum dietary requirements within a country.

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The report estimates that 2.4 billion people, including women in rural areas, were deprived of access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food in 2022. Asia had 402 million people affected by hunger, which constituted 55 per cent of the hunger-affected globally, followed by Africa with 282 million (38 per cent of the global figure). Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) was higher in low-income countries. In South Asia as a whole, 389.2 million people were severely food insecure in 2022.

No country is going to reach the target of zero hunger, child under-nutrition and low birth-weight by 2030, the report predicts. Exclusive breastfeeding was the only area that registered significant improvement.

The report is based on estimates from data provided by governments to measure the progress towards Sustainable Development Goals and Global Nutrition Targets. Where data are not given, the FAO makes estimates based on globally accepted polls and its Food Insecurity Experience Scale Module. The module has a set of eight questions on conditions and experiences associated with limited access to food that respondents are asked to self-report. This model has been applied in 140 countries, including India, since 2014. Yet nationally sourced surveys remain the best sources. Some countries, including India, have not been providing data on moderate and severe food insecurity for quite a few years now. Neither do they conduct nationally represented household surveys on dietary energy consumption.

A Sabar tribal habitation at Kultari gram panchayat in Purulia district, West Bengal. The Sabar community is dependent on schemes such as the MGNREGA for food security.

A Sabar tribal habitation at Kultari gram panchayat in Purulia district, West Bengal. The Sabar community is dependent on schemes such as the MGNREGA for food security. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

The Indian government withheld the findings of the last Household Consumption and Expenditure Survey. It has also questioned the methodology, intent and credibility of global reports that give an unflattering image vis-a-vis certain indicators. The FAO conducts its own surveys where data are not reported. It presents three-year averages. It estimates that there were 233.9 million undernourished persons in India (2020-2022) and 315.8 million in South Asia; India has the largest number of undernourished persons in South Asia and Asia as a whole. The three parameters for estimating undernourishment are consumption surveys by governments, per capita calorie intake, and minimum dietary energy requirement of the population.

An agricultural economist, who did not want to be named, said the disputed parameter was the Coefficient of Variation which measures inequality of calorie intake. While the FAO estimates that inequality has risen, the Indian government disputes this. The FAO will continue to predict nourishment levels through surveys like Gallup until it gets data from governments, according to the agricultural economist.  

What is missing specifically in the Indian context is data on the prevalence of food insecurity (moderate and severe) in the total population. It is categorised as “not reported” in the report. Other countries in South Asia report such data, with the exception of Bhutan and the Maldives which come under the “not available” category.

The Indian government has time and again questioned the data sources and survey methodologies of various global reports, including the Global Hunger Index report, which is expected to be released in October. The GHI draws on FAO and other data apart from its own surveys to make estimates on hunger levels.

Significantly, this year’s FAO report explores the links between urbanisation and affordability of healthy diets and the resultant implications for food security and nutrition. With seven in 10 people expected to live in cities by 2050, this “megatrend” is expected to influence agri-food systems and the capacity to deliver healthy diets. At present, 56 per cent of the world’s population is urbanised.

Areas experiencing the most rapid urbanisation were in southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where the link between urbanisation, economic growth and structural transformation was weak. These regions, says the report, had the highest number of hungry, food insecure and malnourished people. Urbanisation was itself an outcome of push factors such as poverty, inequitable land distribution, environmental degradation, forced displacement because of disasters and conflict and pull factors such as higher wages, urban employment, better social services and educational opportunities.

  • The latest FAO report reveals a seismic shift in food insecurity dynamics, blurring the rural-urban divide. 
  • The report says 2.4 billion people, including rural women, were deprived of access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food in 2022.
  • Asia had 402 million people affected by hunger (55 per cent of the hunger-affected globally), followed by Africa with 282 million.

Food insecurity was higher in rural areas (excepting in North America and Europe), and higher for women. Most people in the world (barring North America and Europe) were unable to afford healthy diets. Most of the regions that could not afford healthy diets because of rising costs were in South Asia, followed by Eastern and West Africa. Low-income countries continued to bear the brunt of stunting, wasting and low birth-weight. The prevalence of stunting and wasting was higher in rural areas.

Food demand and supply were changing rapidly across the rural-urban continuum and the traditional way of looking at the rural-urban divide was not applicable to assess and address food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition. The report presupposes that a change in approach might be needed given the rapid urbanisation of rural populations, agri-food systems and the rural-urban continuum. Food purchases were now high not only among urban households but also among rural households. Peri-urban areas were also showing a high proportion of purchase of processed foods. Urbanisation affected access to affordable healthy diets and food security and nutrition as a consequence.

More adults living in rural areas were affected adversely with food insecurity compared with their counterparts in peri-urban and urban areas. The gender gap that had widened during the pandemic narrowed a little in 2022. A study of 11 African countries revealed that a healthy diet in peri-urban and rural areas cost less than in urban centres, but affordability was a major factor. Moderate to severe food insecurity was prevalent in urban and peri-urban areas too.

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The study showed that the “urban advantage” in accessing affordable healthy diets, food security and nutrition was not as great as expected. Using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, the report estimates that there was no improvement in the Prevalence of Undernourishment. The cost of a healthy diet increased globally by 6.7 per cent between 2019 and 2021 with a single year increase of 4.3 per cent in 2021. 

The highest urbanisation rates were seen in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The analysis of food demand (household food consumption at market value) revealed interesting patterns. While shares of food purchases were high in urban areas, it was also high for rural households. This was a deviation from the traditional “food subsistence” framework for rural households. There was a diffusion of processed foods across the rural-urban continuum.

Food supply chains have also undergone changes. The report found that the bulk of urban food demand in low and middle income countries was supplied regionally, within a 500-kilometre radius.

Data drive policy. Policy in turn can be used to get data for better outcomes for people. In large democracies, muscular nationalism cannot fill these gaps. The report rightly suggests that “it is in the best interest of governments of other countries and regions such data became available for public use or if the data were lacking, governments invest in data development to bridge this important gap”.

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