Food Insecurity to Increase in 2021 at a Higher Rate in Lower Income Countries

An image of farmers leading a team of oxen to plow a field.

Food insecurity is a persistent challenge for millions of people around the world and can be intensified by negative shocks to income, prices, or food supply like those incurred with the global economic crisis caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Widespread food availability, rising income levels, and low food prices help improve a country’s food security status. Conversely, income, food prices, and economic inequality are among the major determinants of how much access people have to food, while agricultural production and market conditions affect how much food is available.

The USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) International Food Security Assessment, 2021-2031, (IFSA) report uses the above determinants to analyze food security conditions in 76 low- and middle-income countries, all of which are historic or current food aid recipients. The assessment finds that per capita incomes in 2021 remain below their pre-pandemic levels for most countries in the assessment. Fluctuating food prices, and in part driven by income-related shocks, have heightened the level of food insecurity in 2021 for all 76 countries—in particular, in lower income countries.

The IFSA model projects food demand based on changing income levels and food prices in 76 countries included in the assessment through 2031. Food insecurity is evaluated by estimating the share of the population in each country that is unable to reach a nutritional target of 2,100 calories per person per day. That average daily calorie level, set by the United Nations, is an internationally accepted recommendation for sustaining a healthy and active lifestyle.

The IFSA 2021-2031 report shows increases–in some cases significant increases–in 2021 food insecurity that are likely confounded by the effects of COVID-19 on local economies. Led by the Asia region, the food insecurity status in the countries covered by the assessment is estimated to increase from its already high level in 2020. Countries in the Central and Southern Asia subregion are projected to lead the increase in food insecurity.

Income-related Effects, Compounded by COVID-19 Fallout, Estimated to Linger in 2021

The economies of most countries in the International Food Security Assessment shrank in 2020 following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Widespread lockdowns and other control measures impacted business activity, employment, and incomes. While the estimates for 2021 indicate a substantial rebound in global economic growth, real per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) levels, a proxy sometimes used for income, are anticipated to remain below their pre-pandemic levels across the four regions in the assessment (see figure below).

In 2021, key sectors of the economies of IFSA countries, such as the tourism or energy sectors, still have not fully recovered. The sluggish recovery of local economies and incomes in the low- and middle-income countries in the assessment underlie much of the continued deterioration of the food security situation in 2021.

The number of food insecure people in 2021 is estimated to be higher than in 2020 for 56 of the 76 countries included in the assessment. Across all 76 countries, 30.8 percent of the population are estimated to be food insecure in 2021, or 6.8 percentage points higher than the estimate for 2020 (see figure below). However, the increase in the prevalence of food insecurity is more pronounced in Asia and North Africa, which are estimated to be 8.1 and 8.9 percentage points higher than in 2020, respectively. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the food-insecure population is estimated to increase by 3.7 percentage points from 2020. The increase in the prevalence of food insecurity in 2021 in Latin America and the Caribbean is estimated to be 1.9 percentage points, relatively lower than the other regions in the assessment.

The food insecurity situation in 2021 means that more than 1.2 billion people potentially lack consistent access to the daily caloric target of 2,100 calories, with marked regional distinctions apparent. As seen in the map below, Asia is estimated to account for 53 percent of the 2021 estimate of food insecure people, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for 41 percent of the 1.2 billion people. The number of food insecure people in 2021 is estimated to be almost 291 million higher than the 2020 estimate, an increase of 32 percent. Asia (almost 210 million)–particularly India–and Sub-Saharan Africa (60 million) account for an estimated 93 percent of the additional 291 million food insecure people in 2021.

Lower-income Countries Continue to Experience Higher Food Insecurity

The nature of the relationship for every level of per capita GDP and the prevalence of the food insecure in a country is highlighted by shifts from 2020 to 2021, as evidenced in the figure below. The change in the relationship between income and food insecurity for 2021 relative to 2020 is indicated by the solid and broken lines, respectively. The trendlines reveal two important points. First, the prevalence of food insecurity has, on average, increased in 2021 for all income levels relative to 2020. Second, the increase in food insecurity is more prevalent in lower-income countries compared to higher-income countries.

After 2021 and up to 2031, income growth across the 76 IFSA countries is projected to accelerate as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local economies recede (see figure below). Moreover, for most of the regions covered in the study, except for Sub-Saharan Africa, fertility rates are falling as a result of greater access to contraception and more women in education and the workplace. This is expected to cause projected population growth to sharply decrease, resulting in higher per capita GDP. Coupled with an expectation of low food prices over the next decade, as world supply is projected to outpace demand, the number of people considered food insecure is projected to decline by 47.4 percent to 637.7 million from 2021 to 2031. The share of the population that is food insecure in the 76 countries studied is projected to fall to 14.1 percent, a 54.4-percent drop from its 2021 estimate.