Here’s How We Can End Global Hunger in 15 Years

The new goals proposed by the U.N. could easily be achieved.

A woman suffering from famine in Sittwe, Myanmar. (Photo: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

Aug 7, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Last night, 795 million people went to sleep hungry. That’s a larger number than the populations of the U.S. and Europe combined, and the effects of not having enough food makes hunger (and malnutrition) the No. 1 public health risk worldwide—greater than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

In 2000, presidents and prime ministers of the United Nations countries set a goal to cut hunger in half by 2015. We came close but didn’t quite hit the target: Worldwide, 10.9 percent of people are undernourished, down from 18.6 percent in 1990–92, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently reported. Despite falling short, the 193 member states agreed this week to charge forward with an even bigger goal: ending poverty and hunger by 2030. The goal is part of the new post-2015 sustainable development goals that will be considered at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

It may sound like a beauty pageant wish, but it is an entirely achievable goal. Some paths to end hunger are relatively straight, a matter of increased production and ecosystem maintenance; others are more systemic, such as solving ongoing conflict and reshaping cultural ideas regarding gender roles. But with international cooperation and a departure from “business as usual,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva think achieving the goal is possible.

What would it take? Simply put, $160 per year for each person living in extreme poverty. That’s a really nice dinner for two in Brooklyn and less than an August air-conditioning bill.

At the presentation of a report on hunger in July, Graziano da Silva said the total investment would total $267 billion per year over the next 15 years. “Given that this is more or less equivalent to 0.3 percent of the global GDP, I personally think it is a relatively small price to pay to end hunger,” he said.

Humanitarians and research institutions are optimistic too. “We can change these things when we all agree to the same goals,” said Lyric Thompson, senior policy manager at the International Center for Research on Women. “The important thing is that we need to carry that work through.” Here’s what needs to be done.

Double Agricultural Production of Small Farmers

If women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry people in the world could be reduced by 150 million, according to the FAO. As a result, one of the sustainable developmental goals for the next 15 years specifically addresses granting small-scale food producers—particularly women, indigenous people, and family farmers—secure and equal access to land; resources like seeds, tools, and pesticides; credit; and markets.

It’s why groups like Landesa and Women’s Land Link Africa are advocating for women’s land tenure rights and agricultural tech companies such as Hello Tractor are developing gender-blind mobile apps that could increase yields up to 200 percent. Even simple methods that increase production, such as sack farming, seem promising.

“There’s not a high cost to get started [in sack farming]; you’re not waiting on someone to give you seed funding. You could grab a sack and do that tomorrow,” said Regina Pritchett of the Huairou Commission, a nonprofit that works on housing and community issues for women across Africa.

Increase Access (and Peace)

Right now, the World Food Programme is on the ground providing assistance in six different emergency situations around the globe. WFP aid has been a vital resource following natural disasters like foods, earthquakes, and droughts, as well as disease outbreaks, but the demographic of need is shifting.

“Increasingly, the people who need our help are caught up in man-made conflicts,said the WFP’s Steve Taravella, citing Syria as a recent example. There, the WFP is struggling to meet the food needs of close to 6 million displaced people. In Syria as well as in Iraq, Yemen, and South Sudan,people are hungry because they’re denied access to food. Their path toward food has been disrupted, roads are destroyed, refrigeration systems aren’t functioning,” he said.

In difficult-to-access conflict settings where local markets still exist, the WFP is increasingly bringing in vouchers for food rather than commodities. Much like a credit card, the vouchers enable people to choose their own food, and they are currently being used for Syrian refugees in Jordan. But a sustainable solution to this particular problem of access requires peace brokering.

End Malnutrition in Children

Poor nutrition causes 45 percent of deaths in children under five—that’s 3.1 million children each year. The World Health Organization has set a target of a 40 percent reduction in children who are stunted from sustained malnutrition and a reduction of childhood wasting (acute malnutrition) to less than 5 percent by 2025. Estimates from the World Bank show it will cost $8.50 per child per year to meet the global stunting target. And it’s a good investment in purely economic terms: Being chronically malnourished affects a child’s future income, whereas $1 invested in stunting reduction generates about $18 in economic returns.

Meet the Nutritional Needs of Adolescent Girls and Pregnant and Lactating Women

Every day, 368 million children in almost every country around the world receive food at school; the WFP provides school meals for 20 million of them. It’s not only a way to address nutritional needs, it’s a method of arresting the poverty cycle.

“We specifically emphasize food for girls so that in very patriarchal societies, families that would be inclined to keep the girl home will send them to school to be fed,” Taravella said. In many cases, families are also incentivized to keep a child in school in order to receive take-home rations—more school, more food.

But school feedings also loop back into increased agricultural output and access to markets, as in many cases the WFP will purchase food for school meals from local farmers, providing an additional market for the producers as well as fresh, nutritionally dense food for kids.

Invest in Agriculture and Rural Infrastructure

Research by the FAO shows that investment in agriculture is five times more effective in reducing poverty and hunger than investment in any other sector. A joint report from the FAO, WFP, and the International Fund for Agriculture Development presented last month found that a $105 billion investment in rural development, targeting small-scale irrigation and infrastructure systems like food processing to reduce postharvest waste and loss, could close the hunger gap.

“We believe that we won’t see gains in reducing poverty and hunger unless we seriously invest in rural people,” IFAD’s Kanayo F. Nwanze said at the report’s presentation in Rome. “Given the right kind of tools and resources, small-scale agricultural producers and rural entrepreneurs can transform struggling communities into thriving places.”

Adapt to Climate Change

Around the world, climate change is exacerbating already hostile natural conditions, threatening farmland with erosion, salination, and desertification. Deforestation further accelerations the rate of erosion. Its results are impactful: If we don’t adapt, hunger and child malnutrition could increase by up to 20 percent by 2050 as a result of climate-related disasters.

Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, but it is also a victim of its effects. In order to meet the growing demands of the global population, agricultural outputs will need to increase 60 percent by 2050. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of ensuring the practices used to meet those goals are sustainable for both communities and the environment.

One measure the U.N. has stressed is the importance of maintaining regional, national, and international gene libraries to preserve genetic diversity of plants. According to the FAO, up to 75 percent of crop genetic diversity is already lost; 22 percent of animal breeds are at risk, and more than half of fish stocks are fully exploited. “Preventing further losses of agricultural genetic resources and diverting more attention to studying them and their potential will boost humankind’s ability to adapt to climate change,” Maria Helena Semedo, the FAO deputy director-general, said in January.

“The biological foundation for agriculture is the diversity that exists in each of the different crops, and that diversity is embodied in each of the different seeds,” Cary Fowler said in the documentary Seeds of Time. He’s behind the “Doomsday Seed Vault” in Svalbard, Norway, which functions as a backup to more than 865,000 samples from gene libraries from around the world. “The fate of humankind is resting on these genetic resources. So nothing could be more important.”