The multibillion dollar question: How much will it cost to end hunger and undernutrition?

by Shenggen Fan | International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Wednesday, 14 March 2018 08:00 GMT

A refugee from South Sudan displays beans received from the World Food Program (WFP) in Palorinya settlement in Moyo district northern Uganda October 26, 2017. Picture taken October 26, 2017. REUTERS/James Akena

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More investments are needed to end hunger—but how much will it cost? Estimates range from $7 billion to $265 billion per year.

World leaders have committed to ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet we are not on track to achieve the goal—in fact hunger, measured as caloric deficiency, rose in 2016 after more than a decade of impressive progress. More than 150 million children are stunted. More investments are needed to end hunger—but how much will it cost?

Multiple approaches exist to end hunger and reduce undernutrition through different investment packages, specific targets, measures, and policy pathways, leading to a wide range of costs: Estimates range from $7 billion to $265 billion per year.

This may sound like a lot, but research shows the costs are far outstripped by potential benefits in terms of boost to the global productivity and GDP.

Here’s a look at the differences in four models and frameworks that estimate the cost of ending hunger, including one that examines the cost of reducing undernutrition.

The first approach is the one followed by the Rome-based United Nations agencies, namely, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and World Food Programme (WFP) that follow the model of ending hunger by ending poverty first (Achieving Zero Hunger). These three UN agencies peg the annual cost of ‘achieving zero hunger’ at $265 billion a year through spending in measures like poverty gap transfers, pro-poor public investment in irrigation, genetic resources, mechanization, agro-processing, infrastructure and institutions, among others.

The two models that the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is looking at are: Reducing hunger by improving agricultural productivity in the context of climate change (IMPACT model); and ending hunger by targeting vulnerable households (MIRAGRODEP model in partnership with International Institute for Sustainable Development).

Of these two approaches, the first one looks at making investments in agricultural R&D, irrigation expansion, water use efficiency, soil management, and infrastructure at an annual cost of $52 billion, whereas the latter focuses on investments in social safety nets, farm support and rural development at an annual cost of $11 billion. Since ending hunger is intertwined with many other SDGs, policymakers may want to invest in packages that tackle multiple development challenges at once—at a cost.

Instead of focusing on hunger, the second approach, followed by the World Bank, focuses on reducing undernutrition through select nutrition interventions (Investment Framework for Nutrition). The Bank estimates that it will cost nearly $7 billion a year by investing in targeted nutrition and nutrition sensitive interventions such as staple food fortification and pro-breastfeeding policies to meet its undernutrition reduction target by 2025.

Ending hunger and malnutrition has significant benefits that include increased productivity and better health, more peaceful and stable communities and households, and improved educational attainment.

Some of these benefits can be expressed in economic terms: new research shows that eliminating global hunger would boost global GDP by $276 billion in 2030 (measured in 2011 prices), equivalent to 0.5 percent of expected total developing country GDP for 2030. For some countries severely affected by hunger today, such as Ethiopia and Zambia, the gains would range between 4 and 6 percent of national GDP.

Another research estimates an alternate set of benefits of reducing child stunting with substantial benefits relative to costs.

Regionally, the research shows, South Asia stands to gain the most if stunting levels are reduced in the next couple of years. A decline in stunting in South Asia by 8.8 percentage points from 2015 levels by 2025 and 12.8 percentage points by 2030, results in a total increase in productivity, summed over a generation of $1,497 billion. This figure alone is more than one-half the Gross National Income of the region in 2015 ($2,742 billion).

Ending hunger and malnutrition is a moral imperative, and these models show that ending hunger can bring about the end of other major problems in global development, and usher in numerous social and economic benefits to the world. By boosting investments, we can better strive to end hunger and malnutrition and achieve many of the interconnected SDGs.

Shenggen Fan is the director general, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) based in Washington, DC.