'One Billion Hungry' Peak Missing From New FAO Numbers

10 October 2012

A revised estimate of the number of hungry people in the world was released yesterday, classifying 870 million as undernourished between 2010-12. Missing from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's figures was any reference to the one billion mark that the agency had claimed was reached in 2009 due to high food prices and the economic crisis. The new report cited a change in methodology and improved data as reasons for the shift.

The FAO had estimated that 1.02 billion people were hungry in 2009, after an additional 100 million people were pushed into hunger and poverty during the previous year due to the food price spike,  according to the organisation's then Director-General, Jacques Diouf. UN agencies working on food and hunger, such as the FAO, the World Food Programme, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development had launched an awareness campaign built around the one billion figure at the time.

The FAO now says that the revised figures, part of the annual State of Food Insecurity Report (SOFI), do not capture the impact of short-term price spikes or depressions and are not comparable to previous editions. Despite this change, the agency still believes that high food prices continue to be a worrying element in ensuring food security for the most vulnerable, since they spend the greatest share of their income on food.

Progress to be made

Finding that there are 132 million fewer people hungry in 2010-12 than 1990-92, the report insists that the Millennium Development Goal of halving the prevalence of hunger in developing countries by 2015 is within reach if the trend continues.

The share of undernourished people in the developing world has fallen from 23.2 to 14.9 percent over the aforementioned 20 year period. Achieving the MDG would mean cutting that number to 11.6 percent, while current projections suggest that 12.5 percent is possible.

Gains made between 1990 and 2007 have since stalled due to the impact of the global economic slowdown. The report calls for safety nets for the most vulnerable, along with broad-based economic growth - particularly in agriculture - as a way of reducing the number of hungry.

SOFI cautions that growth in the agricultural sector, if policies fail to focus on crops grown widely by smallholders or those vulnerable to hunger, is not sufficient to improve food security. It cites Tanzania as a particular case where export-oriented cash crops, such as cotton and tobacco, received government research and extension support instead of assistance that is more directly tied to undernourishment - maize, root crops, pulses, and oilseeds.

Revised methodology

The FAO's undernourishment figures have been the subject of some criticism for more than a decade. Experts, such as Peter Svedberg - formerly of Stockholm University - have long pointed out the weaknesses in the household surveys, data used, and the fundamental methodology. Sources within the UN have confided to Bridges over the years that the previous calculation process may have not been sufficiently rigorous.

The new SOFI paints a picture of global hunger that has gone from a worsening situation to a "steady improvement," Svedberg observed in an exchange with Bridges. This has turned the "hunger problem" on its head, he added. Older estimates showed the hunger condition deteriorating, while the new numbers suggest that things are improving or stable.

The FAO says that the key changes in its methodology used to calculate the figure are the following: an awareness of the loss of calories during distribution to households, better household survey data, new minimum dietary energy requirements, and population figures.

Svedberg notes that the new estimates "square much better" with other nutritional indicators such as childhood stunting and anthropometric measures, such as the number of underweight adults.

Welcoming the first "notable revisions" of the FAO's method and data since 1996, Svedberg warned that the methodology used to calculate the undernourishment figures cannot be used to answer policy relevant questions. Those directing policy interventions, he argued, must know who the malnourished are, where they are located and when they are malnourished to be effective. "The FAO method is, and will remain, silent on these policy-relevant questions," he added.

ICTSD reporting.

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