Climate Crisis Exacerbating World Hunger, Report Shows

Hunger is killing more people worldwide than COVID-19—and climate change is partly to blame, says Oxfam International.

An aid worker distributes measured portions of yellow lentils to residents of Geha subcity at an aid operation run by USAID, Catholic Relief Services and the Relief Society of Tigray on June 16, 2021 in Mekele, Ethiopia.

Jemal Countess/Getty Images

From melting ice caps and rising sea levels to record temperatures and extreme drought, climate change manifests in myriad ways and in myriad places. But it doesn’t just show up in the environment and in the weather. It also shows up at the dinner table, according to global charity Oxfam International, which this month published an ominous report on the state of world hunger, which it says is growing in part thanks to the climate crisis.

Titled “The Hunger Virus Multiplies: Deadly Recipe of Conflict, COVID-19, and Climate Accelerate World Hunger,” the report claims that world hunger is now more deadly than the coronavirus. Currently, it says, seven people worldwide die every minute from COVID-19, while 11 people die every minute from acute hunger.

All told, approximately 155 million people in 55 countries have been pushed to “extreme levels” of food insecurity, according to Oxfam, which says nearly 13% of them, or 20 million people, are newly hungry this year. The problem is especially pronounced in Africa and the Middle East, where more than half a million people across just four countries—Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan, and Yemen—are facing “famine-like” conditions. That’s a six-fold increase since the pandemic began.

Although Oxfam blames the sharp rise in hunger mostly on war and conflict, which account for two-thirds of hunger-related deaths globally, it says the coronavirus exacerbated the problem even further by rattling the global economy. Thanks to the pandemic, it points out, millions of people around the world lost their jobs while interruptions to labor markets and supply chains drove food prices up by 40%—is the highest increase in global food prices in over a decade.

Climate change is the third-biggest driver of hunger behind war and COVID-19, according to Oxfam, which says the world suffered a record $50 billion worth of damages from extreme weather disasters in 2020. Amplified by climate change, those disasters were responsible for driving nearly 16 million people in 15 countries to “crisis levels of hunger,” it says.

“Yearly, climate disasters have more than tripled since 1980, with currently one extreme weather event recorded per week,” reads Oxfam’s report. “Agriculture and food production bore 63% of the impact of these climate crisis shocks, and it is vulnerable countries and poor communities, who least contributed to climate change, that are most affected … The frequency and intensity of climate-fueled disasters will erode the ability of people already living in poverty to withstand shocks. Each disaster is leading them in a downward spiral of deepening poverty and hunger.”

Typical of that “downward spiral” are places like India and East Africa. In 2020, the former fell prey to Cyclone Amphan, which destroyed the farms and fishing boats that are a primary income source for many Indian people. The latter also has been subject to more and stronger cyclones, the fallout from which has included unprecedented plagues of desert locusts whose impact on agriculture has had major implications for food supply and affordability in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

And yet, hunger is not relegated to the developing world. Even the United States is vulnerable, Oxfam stresses. “Even with a relatively resilient food system in the U.S., this climate crisis has come into stark view in recent days,” Oxfam America President and CEO Abby Maxman said in a statement, referring to climate change-fueled heat and drought in the American West, which this summer have left American farmers reeling. “As temperatures soared, once again vulnerable people who we rely on for the food on our tables paid the price. This is just another example of the devastating impacts other nations and food producers—many who have even fewer resources to cope—have seen during ongoing conflict, COVID-19, and the climate crisis.”

Ending hunger will require swift and strong action by governments around the world, according to Oxfam, whose multilateral prescription includes increased funding of international food security programs, ceasefires in conflict-affected countries, and increased access to COVID-19 vaccines for developing nations—not to mention “urgent action” to address the climate crisis. On that front, it says “rich polluting nations” must significantly reduce emissions and invest in climate-resilient food systems that are inclusive of small-scale and sustainable food producers.

Concluded Maxman, “Today, unrelenting conflict on top of the COVID-19 economic fallout, and a worsening climate crisis, has pushed more than 520,000 people to the brink of starvation. Instead of battling the pandemic, warring parties fought each other, too often landing the last blow to millions already battered by weather disasters and economic shocks. The statistics are staggering, but we must remember that these figures are made up of individual people facing unimaginable suffering. Even one person is too many.”