You might not notice it from the way that inflation, conflict and pandemic have driven up the cost of food in recent years, but the spectre of hunger that has haunted humanity for millennia is moving closer to being vanquished.
In middle-income countries, the number of people undernourished fell by roughly a quarter, or 162 million, between 2006 and 2020. That’s more than enough to offset the 43 million increase in low-income nations, which are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
In China, home to most of history’s biggest famines, the prevalence of childhood stunting — a typical indicator of malnutrition — is now at levels comparable to the US. The shift in India has been just dramatic. In 2006, more than a third of women were underweight. By 2019, that figure had been cut almost in half.
In the middle-income countries where three-quarters of humanity live, the scourge of undernourishment is being replaced by a fast-rising epidemic of obesity, along with all the attendant problems of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
The success of the world in preventing hunger is often seen as a repudiation of the 19th century economist Thomas Malthus, who argued that mass starvation would inevitably result from populations growing faster than agricultural output. In fact, the rising tide of obesity is evidence that the hard limits to food production Malthus envisaged are more binding than we suspect.
To the extent that developing countries have managed to capture extra nutrition to feed their populations over the past few decades, an outsize share has come from the lowest-cost calories — fats, sugars and cereal products. The energy in dark green leafy vegetables costs about 29 times more than in fats and oils, while the calories in vitamin A-rich vegetables such as pumpkin or mangoes cost about 10 times their equivalent in sugar.
With food prices at their highest levels since at least 1990 and Indonesia embargoing exports of palm oil to cool the cost of cooking fats, shortages of nutrition may seem the more pressing problem. Still, obesity isn’t so much the enemy of hunger as its sibling — another symptom of a world unable to provide its people with the nutrition they need to lead a healthy life. In the years ahead, that threat will only grow.