In 2016, the United Nations voted to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), pursued by UN member countries since 1990, with a larger, more specific set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). These included SDG #2, which aims to ‘end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.’ This goal and the other 16 SDG’s are intended to be met by 2030, only 12 years from now.
Can SDG #2 be realized? A recently published report from USDA’s Economic Research Service, entitled “International Food Security Assessment: 2018-2028”, sheds some light on this question. Their analysis indicates that by 2028, the number of food insecure people around the world will fall to 446 million from the current level of 782 million, a reduction of 43 percent. In addition, the report finds that the intensity of food insecurity, defined as the gap between food consumption and the caloric target of 2,100 calories per day, also will decline by 34 percent.
While clearly not projecting that UN member countries would be on a path to achieve zero hunger by 2030, the USDA analysis does suggest significant progress would be made toward that goal. What are the main assumptions that lead to this result, and how likely is it that they could be bettered, in order to get the world closer to the desired outcome of ending global hunger? In the opposite direction, what factors could lead to a slower decline or even reversal of global hunger trends?
The model utilizes data from 76 low and middle-income countries around the world, and projects that per capita income will increase across the ten-year period, with the strongest growth occurring in Asia (about 7 percent annually) and in Latin and Central America (about 3 percent annually). In addition, the real prices of the major staple grain crops (rice, wheat, corn, and sorghum), are projected to decline modestly, further increasing the purchasing power of consumers in the developing world, where a large share of disposable income is spent on food.
On the supply side, grain production in the 76 countries is expected to increase by 1.9 percent per year in the 10-year period, with most of that increase from yield increases, since un-tilled arable land is in scarce supply in most regions and relatively low world grain prices will not provide much incentive to expand cultivated area. The greatest gains are projected in Sub-Saharan Africa, where increased use of improved seed and chemical inputs would lead to a substantial increase in yields from relatively low levels. On average, corn yields in Africa between 2014 and 2016 were only one-third of global averages, at about 2 tons per hectare, as reported in the global Crop Production database maintained by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
On the up side, the projected number of food insecure people by 2028 could shrink even faster if there were to be increased investment in agricultural research and development in the next ten years, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2010, greater engagement by donor countries in this area, especially by the United States through its ‘Feed the Future’ initiative, has generated substantial improvements in agricultural productivity and income in targeted countries. As of 2017, USAID was reporting that “ since the initiative started, a projected 23.4 million more people in our targeted countries are living above the poverty line, 3.4 million more children are living free of stunting, and 5.2 million more families no longer suffer from hunger.” Replicating this rate of progress throughout the developing world would make a major contribution toward the achievement of SDG #2 by 2030.
On the down side, the continuation or even expansion of major conflict beyond the current zones would have a devastating impact on our ability to reduce hunger globally. In 2017, FAO estimated that 60 percent of the world’s food insecure population was living in conflict zones, especially in places like Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria.
In addition, forecast models such as used by ERS in this analysis typically assume normal weather would prevail over the projection period. Unfortunately, countries around the world are already beginning to experience the impacts of climate change, such as the unprecedented drought and heat wave currently hitting Western Europe, or the climate-change-fueled massive hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico so hard in 2017. Weather-induced reductions in supply would lower average yield gains and also reduce the income of farmers over the next ten years, especially in developing countries, where few risk management tools are available.