by David Laborde, Jaron Porciello and Carin Smaller
When it comes to feeding the world, funders are hungry for solutions and eager for evidence that their money will make the most impact.
The media spotlight recently shone on the issue thanks to a Twitter exchange between billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk and World Food Programme Chief David Beasley. Beasley cited USD$6 billion as the amount needed to get food and cash to those who are starving, and Musk’s quest for evidence behind that number was insatiable.
So, where’s the evidence? And what is the real number we should be striving for?
Suffice it to say, the solution to world hunger isn’t simple enough to summarize in 280 characters. Nor is calculating its cost. In fact, it’s difficult to even determine just how many mouths need to be fed.
A 2021 WFP assessment of hunger in 38 countries on the brink of famine found that approximately 42 million had acute food insecurity, falling under the Phase 4 category on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which ranks from 1 (no hunger emergency) to 5 (catastrophic hunger emergency). Casting a larger net to include those in Phase 3, more than 155 million people require urgent assistance. And those in war-torn countries who are in the most need of help are the most difficult—and expensive—to feed. They are often considered a special case, and their numbers are not included in many estimates.
Using different indicators, the picture is even grimmer. By measuring caloric hunger or “the prevalence of undernourishment,” the number of those facing chronic hunger jumps to around 768 million. The Food Insecurity Experience Scale estimates that “nearly one in three people in the world did not have access to adequate food in 2020 – an increase of 320 million people in just one year, from 2.05 to 2.37 billion.”
The need is vast, and the scope of solutions is even more so. They require multi-prong, multi-agency approaches spanning several sectors. Sectors include not only agriculture and food systems but also infrastructure, socioeconomic, and environmental considerations.
By investing wisely using evidence-based economic modelling that optimizes spending in strategic, complementary ways, individual benefactors like Musk can make meaningful contributions to ending hunger.
Recent reports by the used novel evidence synthesis and analysis approaches combining traditional academic research and artificial intelligence/machine learning to paint a picture of the current state of world hunger, as well as what successful interventions might look like—and cost.
The Ceres2030 team of 84 scientists from 25 countries concluded that donors could not only help end hunger but also double the incomes of smallholder farmers and protect the climate for USD 33 billion more per year (double their current investment). Of that amount, USD 14 billion would come from donors like Musk.
The report further breaks down how the USD 14 billion should be divided for the best and most cost-effective results, including investment in agricultural research and development, support for social protection programs, incentives for public and private sector coordination, and increased focus on female literacy and training for rural youth.
Other investments would come from across the public and private sector funding continuum. There are many players in the quest to end hunger. The focus of WFP is on acute hunger emergencies and famine, for instance, while other organizations support research or agricultural interventions.
Evidence-based reports like that prepared by Ceres2030 increasingly important as we commit to working together to rapidly respond to escalating climate crises and food emergencies. They can break through the traditional silos that have sometimes stymied earlier efforts. They provide big-picture views as well as deep-dive, data-driven analysis. And they can propose innovative, cross-sector solutions.
Moving to a world free of hunger is doable. But it will not be free, and we have to get smart with our spending. By applying our improved knowledge of local and global food systems, farmer behaviour, and market responses, we can better employ and mobilize resources, minimize trade-offs (e.g., CO2 emissions versus increased productions), and develop synergies to get fiscally and environmentally sustainable outcomes.
This commentary was written with the support of Nicolas Sol Centeno, Intern at IISD.