Module 2: Causes of Hunger

Every day, over 1 billion people go hungry. The cost of food is a constant concern for impoverished people in developing nations, as they spend over 50% of their budget on food.(1) Poverty is the principal cause of hunger.(2) Several factors that contribute to hunger and poverty include war and conflict (which displace many refugees), restrictive economic systems, and climate change (which increases food volatility and food prices).

Lack of fair trade laws and agricultural infrastructure also lead to hunger. While many policies boost agricultural productivity, the policies implemented in Vietnam exemplify the benefits of supporting small-scale agriculture. From 1930 to 2006, Vietnam has halved hunger, reduced poverty from 58% to 18%, and transformed from being a rice importer to being the second largest rice exporter in the world.(3) This development began with agricultural land reform and the public approval of smallholder agriculture (in which crops are mainly grown on small farms instead of commercial or collectivized farming). Vietnamese agricultural systems started becoming more liberalized in 1981, following a decree that de-collectivized agriculture from communal farming to small-scale family farming.(4) Furthermore, Vietnam opened up to fertilizer imports, which lowered the prices of fertilizers and thereby increased their usage, enabling increased food production. Equitable land distribution and investment in agricultural infrastructure allowed Vietnam to increase food security and reduce hunger by half. Brazil has similarly strengthened smallholder agriculture, which now produces 70% of Brazil’s domestic food.(5)

Increasing global demand for energy puts stress on food and energy supply, consequently increasing food prices. In January 2011, world food prices reached a historic peak. The sustained increase in food prices began in 2005, led by the increase in the price of grains, followed by an increase in the price of crops with fats and oils.(6) Many experts are now concerned that the increased demand for energy in the form of biofuels is pushing food prices higher. The conversion of consumer foods into biofuel, such as corn into ethanol, forces many people to continue to go hungry. In 2008, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that increased demand for biofuels contributed to 70% of the increase in maize prices and 40% of the increase in soybean prices.(7) The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that in 2008-2009, 125 million metric tons of cereal went into biofuel production, and in 2010, 1 billion tons of cereal were diverted to produce animal feed or for agricultural uses, causing world food prices to increase by 75%, and prices of staple grains to increase by 126% between 2006 and 2008.(8) Because of higher food prices, consumers in poorer nations, who spend more than 50% of their income on food, must reduce food intake.(9) Although the increase in crop prices may benefit households that are net sellers of crops, the majority of the world’s poor are net buyers of food. In countries like China and Thailand, where land distribution is relatively equal, many farmers benefit from higher food prices, thereby potentially alleviating poverty and increasing food security. However, in most developing nations, such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, there are many landless agricultural laborers who buy more food than they produce. In these countries, higher food prices hurt the majority people and worsen poverty.(10) In many nations, including Mozambique, Tanzania, and Indonesia, smallholder farmers are displaced, and farmland is instead used by large-scale commercial farmers to grow corn for biofuels.(11) Those farmers who are not displaced do not have the capacity to increase production because of rising food prices.(12) Some researchers even claim that the production of biofuels may have caused over 192,000 deaths and 6.7 million additional lost DALYs in 2010.(13) In 2015 the price of food fell to 5 year low due in large part to falling oil prices.(14)

Food vs. Fuel


Case Study: Climate Change and Hunger

Climate change is likely to reduce global food potential and production, thereby increasing the risk of hunger, especially in marginalized economies. As extreme rainfall, droughts, and natural disasters become more frequent and unpredictable, farmers (especially smallholder farmers) are becoming more vulnerable to climate change. The Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CGIAR) estimates that by 2050 3% of Africa's land will no longer be able to grow maize, and rice producting will decline by 14% in South Asia, 10% in East Asia and the Pacific, and 15% in sub-Saharan Africa. These changes are projected to result in price increases of between 32% and 37%.(15)

Geographically, in small island states that already have highly stressed agricultural production systems, an extended dry season or significantly increased rainfall will reduce maize yields by 30-50%, sugarcane yields by 10-35%, and taro yields by 35-75%.(16) In Latin America alone, climate change is expected to reduce yields of the most important crops by 4.6% and decrease food availability by about 300 calories per person per day, resulting in 1.4 million more hungry children by the year 2050.(17) In Africa, there is an expected 21% decline in food availability by 2050.(18) In Asia, climate change will reduce wheat yields by 50%, threatening the food security of over 1.6 billion people.(19)

In 2018, the United Nations warned that climate change was driving hunger around the world.(20) Specifically, the United Nations report noted that extreme weather events, land degradation and desertification, water scarcity and rising sea levels undermine global efforts to eradicate hunger.(21) The number of extreme climate-related disasters including extreme heat, droughts, floods, and storms, all of which harm agricultural productivity and contribute to food shortages, has double since the 1990s.(22) These shortages result in increases in food prices and income losses that reduce access to food for the affected population. In particular, droughts cause more than 80% of the total damage and losses in agriculture and if they are widespread enough they can contribute to national food shortages and thus prevalence of undernourishment.(22)

Go To Module 3: Fighting Hunger >>


(1) World Economic Forum. “Which Countries Spend the Most on Food?” (December 7, 2016)

(2) Concern Worldwide. “The Top 9 Causes of Hunger Worldwide.” (February 27, 2018)

(3) Oxfam International. "Halving Hunger: Still Possible?" (September 2010)

(4) Tuan Dao The. "Vietnam: Consecutive Agrarian Reforms and Success in Family Farming.” Trans. Mary Rodeghier. AGTER, 2007.

(5) Oxfam International. "Halving Hunger: Still Possible?" (September 2010)

(6) Mitchell, D. "A Note on Rising Food Prices." Working paper no. 4682. World Bank, 2008.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ho, M-W. "Biofuels and World Hunger." Institute of Science in Society.

(9) FAO. "Biofuels and Household Food Security." (2008)

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ho, M-W. "Biofuels and World Hunger."  Institute of Science in Society,

(12) Rice, T. "Meals per Gallon: The Impact of Industrial Biofuels on People and Global Hunger." Publication. Ed. Angela Burton. ActionAid. (2010).

(13) Goklany, I.M. (2011) “Could Biofuel Policies Increase Death and Disease in Developing Countries?”Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. 16(1), 9-13.

(14) World Bank Group. “Food Price Watch.” Paper 98251. (June 2015)

(15) CGIAR. "Climate Impacts on Production: Crops and Farming Systems.

(16) World Food Programme. "Hunger and Climate Change."

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Ibid.

(20) United Nations Climate Change. (September 12, 2018) “UN Warns Climate Change is Driving Global Hunger.”

(21) FAO. “2018: The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.”

(22) Ibid.