Editor's note: This article was originally published March 18, 2015; it was updated January 30, 2018 to reflect the latest information.
Being hungry means more than just missing a meal. It’s a debilitating crisis that has more than 800 million people in its grip.
Hunger is a perilous cycle that passes from one generation to the next: Families who struggle with chronic hunger and malnutrition consistently go without the nutrients their minds and bodies need, which then prevents them from being able to work, go to school, or improve their lives.
Mercy Corps believes that breaking the cycle of poverty and building strong communities begins when every person has enough nutritious food to live a healthy and productive life. It is key to our work in more than 40 countries around the world.
Read on to learn more about hunger and better understand what the World Health Organization considers the greatest single threat to global public health.
Who is hungry?
Salma lives in Niger, where the dry season often leaves nothing to eat. When her husband leaves to find work in Nigeria, it's up to her to feed their five kids. PHOTO: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
1 in every 9 people goes to bed hungry each night.
Around the world, 815 million people do not have enough of the food they need to live an active, healthy life.
People suffering from chronic hunger are plagued with recurring illnesses, developmental disabilities and low productivity. They are often forced to use all their limited physical and financial resources just to put food on the table.
98 percent of the world’s hungry live in developing regions. Most of them live in Asia.
The highest number of malnourished people, 520 million, lives in Asia and the Pacific, in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 243 million people face hunger in arid countries like Ethiopia, Niger and Mali.
And 43 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean are struggling to find enough to eat, in places like Guatemala and Haiti.
The majority of these hungry families live in rural areas where they widely depend on agriculture to survive.
Timor-Leste, a tiny island nation near Indonesia, has one of the highest rates of hunger in the world. PHOTO: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
60 percent of the world’s hungry are women and girls.
In many places, male-dominated social structures limit the resources women have like job opportunities, financial services, and education, making them more vulnerable to poverty and hunger.
This, in turn, impacts their children. A mother who suffers from hunger and malnourishment has an increased risk of complications during childbirth or delivering an underweight baby, which can mean irreversible physical and mental stunting right from childbirth. Learn more about the impact of malnutrition.
Why are they hungry?
The world has enough food to support its hungry people. Mercy Corps works with farmers to get it to them. PHOTO: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
Many hungry people live in countries with food surpluses, not food shortages.
The issue, largely, is that the people who need food the most simply don’t have steady access to it.
In the hungriest countries, families struggle to get the food they need because of several issues: lack of infrastructure like roads and storage facilities, frequent war and displacement, natural disaster, climate change, and chronic poverty.
The majority of those who are hungry live in countries experiencing ongoing conflict and violence — 489 million of 815 million. The numbers are even more striking for children. More than 75 percent of the world's malnourished children (122 million of 155 million) live in countries affected by conflict.
50 percent of the world’s poorest families don’t buy their food — they grow it.
Many poverty-stricken families depend on their land and livestock for both food and income, leaving them vulnerable to natural disasters that can quickly strip them of their livelihoods.
Drought — as a result of climate change and increasingly unpredictable rainfall — has become one of the most common causes of food shortages in the world. It consistently causes crop failures, kills entire herds of livestock, and dries up farmland in poor communities that have no other means to survive.
Up to one-third of the food produced around the world is never consumed.
So much food is wasted in developing countries due to inadequate food production systems. Some of the factors responsible for food losses include inefficient farming techniques, lack of post-harvest storage and management resources, and weak market connections.
How does this affect their lives?
Hunger traps people into a life of poverty and, ultimately, more hunger.
People living in poverty — less than $1.25 USD per day — struggle to afford safe, nutritious food to feed themselves and their families. As they grow hungrier they become weak, prone to illness and less productive, making it difficult to work. If they're farmers, they can't afford the tools, seeds and fertilizer they need to increase their production, let alone have the strength to perform the laborious work.
The limited income also means they often can't afford to send their children to school or they pull them out to work to help support the family. Even if children are lucky enough to go to class, their malnourishment prevents them from learning to their fullest.
Lack of education prevents better job opportunities in the future, confining yet another generation to the same life of poverty and hunger.
20 percent of all children around the world are undernourished.
And most of them are suffering from long-term malnourishment that has serious health implications that will keep them from reaching their full potential.
Malnutrition causes stunting — when the body fails to fully develop physically and mentally — and increases a child’s risk of death and lifelong illness. A child who is chronically hungry cannot grow or learn to their full ability. In short, it steals away their future.
Hunger affects children the most and prevents them from building a full, healthy life. PHOTO: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
Hunger kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
Around 9 million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases every year, more than double the lives taken by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in 2016.
Every 10 seconds, a child dies from hunger.
Poor nutrition is responsible for nearly half of all deaths in children under the age of 5 — about 3 million children die each year because their bodies don’t have enough of the basic nutrients they need to function and grow.
What can we do about it?
There will be over 2 billion more people who need food by 2050.
The world's population is projected to rise to around 10 billion by 2050 — up from more than 7 billion today. Making sure there's enough for everyone to eat will be an increasing concern as the population multiplies. Even though we must increase production by 50 percent to keep up with the demand and find new, secure sources of food, the main challenge in the future fight against hunger will be the same one we’re facing today: ensuring that every family is able to access it.
The world produces enough food for everyone to live a healthy, productive life.
There is 17 percent more food available per person than there was 30 years ago. And if all the world's food were evenly distributed, there would be enough for everyone to get 2,700 calories per day — even more than the minimum 2,100 requirement for proper health. But 25 percent of the world's food calories are lost or wasted before they’re consumed.
The challenge is not a lack of food — it’s making food consistently available to everyone who needs it.
Female farmers have the potential to pull as many as 150 million people out of hunger.
Empowering women is essential to global food security. Almost half of the world’s farmers are women, but they lack the same tools — land rights, financing, training — that their male counterparts have, and their farms are less productive as a result.
If women and men had equal agricultural resources, female farmers could increase their productivity enough to help lift millions of people out of hunger.
Mercy Corps works to empower women and girls to grow more food and build a future around the world. PHOTOS: Sean Sheridan, Corinna Robbins, and Slavisa Trtic Trle for Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps takes a holistic approach to alleviate hunger right now and help communities meet their own food needs far into the future.
We respond to urgent needs: When disaster or war creates a hunger crisis, we quickly provide emergency food, cash vouchers to buy food, treatment for malnutrition, and cash-for-work projects so people can earn the money to buy food locally.
We improve access to food: We help farmers increase their yields, diversify crops, raise healthier animals and protect their harvests from spoiling and loss.
We support overall health: We teach nutrition and hygiene, help new mothers properly care for infant and child needs, and improve access to clean drinking water and sanitation, so people can avoid disease and benefit fully from the food they eat.
We build a more food-secure future: We connect buyers and sellers to increase farmers' incomes and strengthen markets, introduce mobile financial services to help farmers grow their business, and teach communities to protect and preserve the environment they depend on.
The number of people living with hunger appears to be on the rise.
About 2 billion people have been freed from hunger since 1990, when the United Nations set the development goal to halve the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015. We’ve been making progress towards meeting that goal, but latest research suggests the declining trend could be reversing. This year, the number of chronically hungry people increased for the first time in over a decade.
We need to do more and act now to make sure the numbers don’t continue to increase.
How you can help
PHOTO: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
You are an important part of this progress. Your support helps provide emergency food and agricultural solutions to keep families from going hungry in the world's toughest places. Donate today ▸