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What’s Up (or Down) with Global Hunger?

Duncan Green's picture

Guest post from Oxfam Research Policy Adviser Richard King (right)

Today the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is celebrating World Food Day, and is playing host to the latest Committee on World Food Security meeting. Last week, to warm things up, the FAO, World Food Programme, and International Fund for Agricultural Development launched their joint 2012 ‘State of Food Insecurity in the World’ (SOFI) report, with the FAO’s latest estimates of global hunger. If you’re familiar with oft-cited facts such as ‘nearly one in seven people go to bed hungry’, or ‘nearly a billion people don’t have enough to eat’ reverberating around the echo chamber, they’re based on the calculations in previous editions of this publication.

The annual report has commanded a lot of interest over the past few years, partly because we’re living through a time of extraordinary food price volatility, but also because some of the FAO’s estimates of hunger (or more properly ‘undernourishment’) during the global food and economic crises have raised eyebrows. I won’t rehash here previous critiques of the recent estimates; suffice to say the shortcomings have been increasingly recognised by the FAO itself, and they’ve been beavering away behind the scenes to improve both their calculations and the data that they rely on. So it was with much anticipation that we waited to see what changes last week’s report would bring. And [fanfare!] here they are…

As you can see from the above chart (dotted lines are projections), the major overhaul of the calculations has fundamentally changed our understanding of the trajectory of global hunger over the past two decades. Notably the huge spike previously attributed to food and economic crises in the late 2000s has vanished. That’s not to say these short-term crisis events, particularly the earlier food price shock, didn’t have pernicious consequences for people’s food security, or are without implications for their broader lives over a longer period, it’s just that this particular measure of long-term, absolute, undernourishment isn’t set up to capture the full impact of these acute shocks. For example, very young children are especially vulnerable to short-term disruptions in micro-nutrients (even if calorific intake remains sufficient), which can translate into growth deficiencies and learning difficulties for life. Similarly, families may be forced apart for good when short-term bouts of stress-induced domestic violence have driven women out of their homes in fear of their husbands, and when men abandon their families under the guise of looking for work in the city, some never to return. It’s also true that the latter economic crisis had less of a macro impact on the economies of the most populous developing countries than the guestimated projections originally envisaged.

Cynics might question whether there is also a political motive behind the revisions, less than three years from the 2015 Millennium Development Goal deadline for reducing by half the 1990 proportion of people in the developing world suffering from chronic hunger. After all, recent estimates suggest the allied poverty reduction target for MDG1 has now been met, and criticisms abound. But such scepticism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny once you get under the bonnet of the changes, for at least three reasons.

First, despite the much more positive trajectory than shown in past reports, there is still a long way to go before the MDG target of 11.6 per cent of the developing world’s population would be met. The FAO calculate that “If the average annual decline of the past 20 years continues to 2015, the prevalence of undernourishment in developing countries would reach 12.5 per cent”, still above target. But even this relatively near-miss doesn’t look likely given the flat-lining of progress over the past five years. Political inaction means high and volatile food prices, lack of investment in agriculture, gender inequality, land grabs and climate change are now jeopardising past gains in the fight against hunger.

Second, if you break down the figures by region, the picture is more alarming than at first sight. For sure, there have been significant improvements in Asia and the Pacific, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, both in reducing the proportion of people hungry (the prevalence) and the absolute number of undernourished people, but the picture in the Near East and Africa both north and south of the Sahara is seriously concerning; in sub-Saharan Africa the prevalence was slowly improving, but has slowed, and the absolute number of hungry people in all of Africa and the Near East continues to march relentlessly upwards.

Three, looking at the actual revisions made to the calculations, it’s clear that the main driver of the changes are better (though still far from perfect) data, rather than methodological meddling. Let’s unpack these revisions.

There are essentially five elements that contribute to the significantly different values to those presented in previous reports:

  • Updated estimates of population size and structure
  • Better data on individuals’ heights, and so improved estimates of how much food energy is required
  • Updated estimates of dietary energy supplies available for all countries
  • New estimates of food losses at the retail level (between wholesalers and households)
  • Changes to the underlying methodology (essentially tweaks to statistical distribution models and estimates of coefficients of variation)

Each of these elements has an upward or downward bearing on the previous estimates of undernourishment, but by far the largest marginal factor in each period is the new information available on food losses, which alone adds over 100 million people to the ranks of the hungry previously estimated for each period. In recent years this marginal increase has been more than compensated by downward revisions resulting from dietary energy supply, heights, and methodology changes, but none of these alone accounts for as much as half of the influence of food losses.

Although this leaves us with a better, radically different, impression of what’s likely to have been happening to the prevalence of hunger, it still only paints a partial and conservative picture of food insecurity. Why? Well first, as already alluded to, this is an “indicator of chronic undernourishment based on annual average consumption” so doesn’t fully capture effects of food price and other acute economic shocks. Nor does it capture the longer run impacts of these shocks such as potential job losses, childhood stunting, or the added burdens on women in the care economy.

Second, ‘undernourishment’ is defined “as an extreme form of food insecurity, arising when food energy availability is inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle”. Any woman trying to put food on the table for her family and to deal with the broader repercussions of volatile food prices would be amused by the notion of living a sedentary lifestyle.

Third, the focus on food energy doesn’t tell us about the quality of micronutrients being consumed or whether food preferences are being met. For example, early findings from work undertaken by Oxfam and IDS research partners suggest that as food prices continue to rise children in coastal Kenya have been collecting nutritious (but perhaps not entirely palatable) caterpillars to eat with their starchy staple ugali; whereas in Indonesia, the ‘substitution’ is replacing expensive vegetables with quick and tasty, but less nutritious, instant noodles.

To deal with these shortcomings of the prevalence of undernourishment measure, several responses are in motion. The FAO have for the first time published a wider suite of food security indicators ranging across the determinants of food insecurity, outcomes of food insecurity, and vulnerabilities to food security. And, though it may seem odd that the prevalence of undernourishment indicator itself is not based on asking people if they are hungry, the FAO have also now announced plans to initiate a global poll to monitor food insecurity based on short interviews with people.

This could throw up some interesting results and give us a better indication of the impacts of acute shock events. But in order to understand what it means to live in a time food price volatility, these quantitative indicators and polls need supplementing with rich qualitative information that shed light on how well people are coping with changes to their food security and wellbeing. This is something that Oxfam, IDS, and partners are seeking to do through our Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project.

This blog was originally posted on From Poverty to Power

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