The UN warned the world of a grim rise in the number of people experiencing hunger because of the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Global Report on Food Crises, published on Wednesday, found that 155 million people were in “crisis or worse” in 55 countries in 2020 – 20 million more than in 2019.
Those in a food crisis experience high levels of malnutrition and can meet only minimum dietary requirements.
About 133,000 people were classed as facing catastrophe – defined as one step away from starvation – in the war-torn countries of Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Yemen.
Researchers found countries in Africa were disproportionately affected by food shortages, with about 98 million people facing acute food insecurity in 2020.
But other parts of the world were not spared. Afghanistan, Syria and Haiti were among the world’s 10 worst places for availability of food last year.
More than 75 million children under five were too short and more than 15 million were too thin because of limited access to food last year.
The findings were the worst since the report was first published in 2016.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the “grim reading” demonstrated why food inequality required the urgent attention of world leaders.
Mr Guterres said conflict, natural disasters and economic crises were the main cause of hunger.
“They cannot be resolved separately," he said. "Hunger and poverty combine with inequality, climate shocks and tensions over land and resources to spark and drive conflict.
“Likewise, conflict forces people to leave their homes, land and jobs. It disrupts agriculture and trade, reduces access to vital resources like water and electricity, and so drives hunger and famine.”
While conflict remains the main driver of world hunger, the report said that the Covid-19 pandemic aggravated the situation because people were forced out of work by lockdown measures.
Hunger increased in fragile economies where there were few unemployment benefits to protect workers from losing their jobs.
An estimated 142 million people in 40 countries will be in food crisis this year, with another 155,000 facing catastrophe, the report said.
Data for the 15 remaining countries typically surveyed was not available.