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Counting calories: the data behind food insecurity and hunger

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This blog is part of a series using data from World Development Indicators to explore progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and their associated targets. The new Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals 2017, published in April 2017, and the SDG Dashboard provide in-depth analyses of all 17 goals.


As Agriculture Economists who work on advancing the food and agriculture agenda, SDG 2 articulates much of our work in the Sustainable Development agenda and illustrates how food and agriculture are intertwined with poverty reduction. Goal 2 seeks to “End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”

Without making progress on Goal 2, we can’t achieve the Bank’s twin goals of ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

But what does Goal 2 mean, exactly? On the surface, it might seem to be a matter of producing more food in a sustainable way. But a deeper dive into this SDG reveals that it is not quite that simple.

An end to hunger is an end to chronic undernourishment, the state of not acquiring enough food to meet the daily minimum dietary energy requirements over a year. The prevalence of undernourishment provides only a partial picture of the food security situation. To contribute to a more comprehensive assessment of the multiple dimensions and manifestations of food insecurity and to better inform policy responses, the Food and Agriculture Organization has compiled a preliminary set of food security indicators, available for most countries and years.

Measuring hunger

One such indicator is the depth of food deficit, which is the average intensity of food deprivation of the undernourished. In this case, it is measured as the number of calories needed to the lift the undernourished from their current status, everything else being constant. The depth of food deficit has declined the fastest in East Asia and the Pacific and in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years, but persists at relatively high levels in Sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia. Globally, the depth of food deficit is about half of what it was 20 years ago.

Anticipating food demand

Continuing population growth and rising food demand coupled with the projected negative impacts of climate change on agriculture in the most vulnerable countries add to the challenge of sustaining and accelerating progress across all regions.[1] Populations are rising at the fastest rate where food deficit is already the highest. Projected rises in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia over the next 15 years will together account for around two-thirds of the change in the global population, anticipated to rise by 16 percent over that period. At the same time, food demand is projected to rise by at least 20 percent globally, with the largest increases in Sub-Saharan Africa (55 percent) and South Asia (25 percent).


Accelerating food production

Agricultural productivity is not keeping pace with the growing food demand. Improving agricultural performance will be central to addressing poverty and food insecurity, as more than three-quarters of poor people still live in rural areas, and nearly two-thirds of the world’s poor work in agriculture.[2] Although cereal yields have accelerated in Sub-Saharan Africa since the 1990s (doubling the cereal yield growth rate), they are not rising fast enough to meet growing food demand. If projected food demand to 2030 in Sub-Saharan Africa is to be met by productivity gains alone, cereal yields will need to increase at 3 percent a year, about a third higher than the 2.2 percent rate during 2000-14.

Some growth will be met by expanding production to areas currently not under cultivation, but growth in yields will become more important. Climate change could further reduce yields.[3] In the Middle East and North Africa, cereal yield growth has slowed from 2.5 percent annually in the 1990s to 0.9 percent in 2000-14, less than half the 2 percent annual population growth rate in the region since 2000.


A myriad of challenges.

Rising agricultural productivity across all food system sub-sectors in the regions with the highest food deficits and growing populations will undoubtedly be key to ending hunger and other forms of malnutrition. Much faster progress is needed on the basic food system agenda—providing better access to inputs, seeds, fertilizer, technology, innovation and markets to farmers. It is also needed on the emerging new food system agenda including tapping private sector interest in the growing agribusiness markets across Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, developing innovative approaches and mobilizing investment in climate resilient agriculture, and facilitating food trade across borders. Agricultural productivity growth, higher incomes, investment in climate resilience, and enhanced food trade and markets will all be needed to help end hunger by 2030. And to ensure these programs succeed, data will be key to measuring inputs and their effects, and ultimately measuring progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 2.

[1] World Bank. 2016. Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Inequality. Washington, DC. Doi: 10.1596/978-1-4648-0958-3.
[2] World Bank. 2016. Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Inequality. Washington, DC. Doi: 10.1596/978-1-4648-0958-3.
[3] Townsend, Robert. 2015. Ending poverty and hunger by 2030: an agenda for the global food system. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.

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