Understanding Global Hunger and Food Insecurity

By Heifer International

October 6, 2023

A woman feeds her son fortified porridge in Diacounda, Sedhiou, Senegal, as part of a program targeting child food security in high-malnutrition areas.
The world produces enough food to feed the global population, yet hunger and food insecurity affect millions of people worldwide. Photo by Sylvain Cherkaoui/Heifer International.

Global hunger and food insecurity are critical challenges that affect millions of people worldwide. While the world produces enough food to feed the global population, the issue persists due to complex underlying causes. In this article, we'll explore the reasons behind global hunger and food insecurity, the impact on communities and potential solutions to this pressing problem.

What is the Difference Between Hunger and Food Insecurity?

A smallholder farmer stands with a handful of lettuce he just harvested.
Hunger and food insecurity is a complex problem. Small-scale food producers are particularly vulnerable. Photo by Phillip Davis/Heifer International.

Hunger and food insecurity are interconnected issues that refer to inadequate access to nutritious, safe and sufficient food. Food insecurity can range from a mild and intermittent shortage of food to hunger, which is a severe and chronic lack of food.

Food insecurity is the inability to consistently meet nutritional and caloric needs. Households that are food insecure may worry about running out of food, may not consume an adequate diversity of nutrients or may make compromises in the quality and quantity of meals.

Hunger is the physical discomfort caused by insufficient food intake. In humanitarian aid and global development, it's much more serious, referring to the experience of going prolonged periods of time unable to consume enough calories to maintain health. Chronic hunger can lead to malnutrition and even starvation, posing a severe threat to mental and physical health and child development.

These problems can have profound social, economic and health implications, and can often be exacerbated by various factors, including poverty, inequity, conflict, climate change and economic instability.

What Causes Hunger and Food Insecurity?

In a world that produces enough food for everyone, millions still face hunger and food insecurity. Understanding the root causes of the global food crisis is essential to finding effective solutions.

Poverty: Poverty is a leading cause of food insecurity. Impoverished communities often lack access to resources, education and employment opportunities, making it difficult for them to secure enough food for their families.

  • The World Bank estimates that more than 648 million people live in extreme poverty, below the international poverty line of $2.15 per day. Poverty limits people's ability to afford food and their access to education and healthcare, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and food insecurity.

Climate Change: Climate change disrupts agriculture, reducing crop yields and impacting the availability and affordability of food. Extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, exacerbate food insecurity.

  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that "climate change poses a major and growing threat to global food security." Climate change also impacts the livelihoods of farmers and the health of vulnerable communities.

Inequity: Unequal distribution of natural and economic resources can perpetuate hunger. Many communities lack access to nutritious food due to systemic inequities.

  • While some regions achieve surplus food production, others face chronic shortages. The Global Hunger Index reports that Africa and South Asia have the highest levels of hunger due to limited access to technology and infrastructure for efficient food distribution.

Food Loss and Waste: Nearly 30 percent of all food produced is never eaten due to food loss and waste. This loss to the global food supply translates to 1.3 billion tons of food that could have potentially nourished those in need.

  • Cutting food loss and waste could provide enough food to feed all malnourished people globally. Efficiently managing food resources could alleviate hunger and improve food security, ensuring that food reaches those who need it most.

Conflict: Conflict contributes significantly to food insecurity. When violence breaks out, agricultural production can be disrupted, infrastructure can be damaged and people can be displaced, making it difficult to obtain food.

Key Facts About Global Hunger and Food Insecurity

A Heifer-trained community facilitator teaches mothers in her Senegalese village how to make nutrient-dense porridge.
Hunger and malnutrition impact pregnant women and children. Nafi Sané, a Heifer-trained community facilitator, teaches mothers in her Senegalese village how to make nutrient-dense porridge as a means of addressing high rates of child malnutrition. Photo by Sylvain Cherkaoui/Heifer International.

The United Nations reports that global hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition are on the rise.

To understand this issue more thoroughly, let's begin with some facts from the report prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023.

Approximately 30 percent of the global population was moderately or severely food insecure in 2022. This amounts to 2.4 billion people worldwide.

Hunger results from prolonged food insecurity and can have severe consequences for physical and mental health, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. According to the report, as many as 783 million people suffered from hunger in 2022. 

"The truth is this is a crisis of global consequences. " — Surita Sandosham, Heifer International president and CEO 

An estimated 32 percent of women worldwide faced moderate to severe food insecurity, compared to 28 percent of men. The gender gap in food and nutrition security has only widened since 2020.

As a result of malnutrition, approximately 45 million children below five years of age suffered from wasting, elevating their mortality risk by as much as 12 times. In addition, 149 million children below five years old experienced stunted growth and development due to chronic nutritional deficiencies.

Due to rising consumer food prices in 2020, an additional 112 million people could not afford a nutritious diet compared to the previous year.

"The truth is this is a crisis of global consequences," said Heifer International President and CEO Surita Sandosham. "People in low- and middle-income countries do not have the safety net they need when food or farming supplies are unavailable or unaffordable, and there are devastating downturns that come with that level of vulnerability. But this is not happening in isolation. The impacts are worldwide and long-lasting, which we see now as we reckon with losing years of progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals."

These statistics highlight the need for comprehensive efforts to address global food security and nutrition challenges.

What is the Impact of World Hunger?

Two women from Guatemala prepare lunch for their relatives.
A food and agriculture organization like Heifer International provides training and resources to smallholder farmers, increasing their incomes and ability to feed their families and communities. Photo by Rolando López Gomar/Heifer International.

The effects of hunger around the world are profound and multifaceted. Hunger is a global threat that can lead to severe health problems. Children, particularly those in the first 1,000 days of life, are at risk of malnutrition, developmental delay, impaired growth, and even infant and child mortality. Pregnant women can experience complications, including miscarriages, premature delivery and maternal death. Hunger can impair the immune system, resulting in vulnerability to illness and disease, which can be fatal to the elderly or those with chronic illnesses.

Hunger and food insecurity can also affect mental health and well-being. Food insecurity leads to an increase in stress, hypertension, depression, anxiety and conflict. Lack of quality nutrition can hinder a child's ability to learn and their future potential, perpetuating the cycle.

Solutions to Global Hunger and Food Insecurity

A pupil of Aolo primary school eats an egg in rural western Kenya.
Eggs and other animal-sourced foods are excellent nutrition sources for children's growth and development. Photo by Allan Gichigi/Heifer International.

Addressing hunger and food insecurity requires a multifaceted approach.

Efforts to address global hunger and food insecurity involve a combination of strategies, including improving food production and distribution systems, promoting sustainable agriculture, reducing poverty and inequity, enhancing social safety nets and addressing the underlying causes of these issues, such as conflict and climate change.

International organizations, governments, nonprofits and individuals all play vital roles in working toward a world where everyone has access to adequate and nutritious food, ultimately aiming to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger.

Heifer International Works To End Hunger and Food Insecurity

Three women stand with pumpkins ready for delivery in Boughaghuma village, Palpa, Nepal.
Heifer International works to end hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. Our work with farmers helps to improve productivity and increase incomes, empowering people facing food insecurity to feed their families and communities. Photo by Narendra Shrestha/Heifer International.

In our effort to improve nutrition and food security globally, Heifer International is working to end hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. Our work helps farmers improve productivity, diversify their businesses and increase incomes, empowering people facing food insecurity to feed their families and communities.

Improving Nutrition and Food Security

Heifer's training addresses production challenges, teaches the nutritional value of available foods and tackles cultural norms that contribute to hunger and malnutrition, such as unequal food distribution to women and children.

Heifer also assists families in raising livestock and planting kitchen gardens to grow fresh, nutritious food for their families, and helps farmers build profitable agricultural livelihoods that afford them the food they need. The Hatching Hope initiative, a partnership with Cargill, equips farmers with the knowledge and skills they need to start and grow poultry businesses. Chickens and eggs are among the best and lowest-cost sources of high-quality protein, urgently needed by millions of people facing food insecurity and hunger.

We also train and certify community animal health service providers to care for animals in rural communities. These service providers offer sustainable animal health care and affordable supplies for farmers in their communities, reducing farmers’ vulnerability.

Sustainable Agriculture

Heifer International promotes sustainable agriculture practices that empower communities to grow their own food while caring for the Earth. We provide training and resources to smallholder farmers, helping them improve crop and animal yields and increase income with consideration for maintaining and restoring the environment.

Extreme weather and shifting seasons affect the ability of farmers to feed their families and their communities, causing increases in food insecurity and hunger. Using climate-smart practices, we help smallholder farmers adopt new methods and technologies that build resilience and protect precious natural resources, such as soil and water.

Heifer also promotes regenerative agriculture, a form of farming that restores the soil and increases biodiversity. Heifer Ranch Center for Regenerative Agriculture in Arkansas is certified to train smallholder farmers to holistically manage their land to increase farm productivity and build more resilient food systems.

Members of the Bihani Social Entrepreneur Women's Cooperative stand together in Kopawa, Nepal.
The women of Bihani Dairy outside the dairy business that began as a simple milk collection center several years ago. Photo by Joe Tobiason/Heifer International.

Empowering Women Farmers

More than half of the world’s farmers are women, but due to patriarchal inequities, they often don’t have control over the land they farm. Heifer International recognizes the pivotal role of women in agriculture. We work to empower women by providing training and resources, enabling them to start agricultural businesses and become leaders in their communities. Women held nearly 60% of leadership positions in Heifer-assisted cooperatives in 2022.

Women typically invest more of their earnings in their families and communities, and when they have access to assets and freedom to earn their own income, their families and communities benefit from access to better food, education and health care.

Investing in Farmers and Communities

From Haiti to Honduras, Kenya to Bangladesh, Heifer International invests in infrastructure that improves the ability of farmers to connect with buyers and earn a sustainable living income, the amount of money required to meet basic needs and lead a dignified life. To support this work, Heifer International focuses on creating farmer-centered agricultural value chains that can help vulnerable people feed their communities while earning a fair wage for themselves. As a result of value chain investment initiatives, farmers are able to participate more equitably in local markets.

At every stage of the value chain, a product becomes more valuable as it improves in quality and convenience or is processed into other desirable products. More involvement in the value chain offers the farmer the opportunity to earn more income at each link. For example, in Kenya, investments in machinery for chilling, pasteurizing and making yogurt are helping Kenyan dairy farmers earn higher prices for the milk they produce.

A young girl holds a basket of fresh produce in Belbari, Nepal.
Subekchay, 12, with fresh produce at her home in Belbari, Nepal. Many families around the world must grow what they eat, which can make a balanced, protein-rich diet hard to come by. Photo by Russell Powell/Heifer International.


Global hunger is a pressing issue that demands immediate attention and action. While the numbers may be daunting, Heifer International is striving to make a significant impact by addressing the root causes of hunger and providing sustainable solutions.

Together with our partners, Heifer International is working toward a world where hunger is a thing of the past and every person has access to nutritious food.

“What we’re focused on is resilience," said Surita. "Our strategy has been to work alongside farmers to build farms, businesses and food systems that support people well beyond their next meal, providing technical assistance, market development, investment in infrastructure and sustainable solutions that reliably keep income in the pockets of farmers and food in the communities where it's needed most. Not just for today, but for the future.”