New UN Hunger Numbers No Reason For Complacency

Jennifer Clapp

It turns out that the number of hungry people on the planet was not as high as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations originally thought it was. We were told in 2009 that the number of hungry people had surpassed 1 billion. But last week, the organization revised its numbers downward.

Armed with new and more accurate data and assessment methods, the new figures, published in the new State of Food Insecurity in the World report, show a slow decline in world hunger from around 1 billion hungry people in 1990-91 to around 867 million in 2007-09. And in 2010-12, the number inched a bit higher to 868 million. In other words, the food crisis of 2007-09 halted progress in fighting world hunger. The numbers also show that the vast majority of the people facing hunger live in developing countries.

It is good news that fewer people are facing chronic hunger than we had thought, but we should not be complacent about the issue. It is unacceptable that one in eight people do not have enough to eat. With World Food Day upon us this week, it’s important to pause to consider what forces are contributing to the persistence of hunger in the world today, and what the global community can do to address it.

Higher and more volatile food prices since 2007 have made the fight against hunger more challenging. For the world’s poorest people, who spend some 50-80 percent of their income on food, sharp rises in food prices can mean an immediate drop in food intake. Volatile food prices also complicate farmers’ investment decisions, making long-term planning extremely difficult.

Volatility in food prices is widely recognized as a problem. Its exact causes are debated, but there is a growing consensus that financial speculation on commodity markets is a key contributing factor. Yet the industrialized countries that are host to the largest agricultural commodity exchanges have been slow to put in place meaningful regulations to tame speculation on food commodities. And the gains that have been made on the financial regulatory front are currently under threat. Much more needs to be done to properly regulate these markets.

The global community could also do more to support policies designed to insulate developing countries from global food price shocks. The FAO’s most recent data helps to underscore this point. In the last five years, the percentage of hungry people rose in Africa, but it fell in Asia. A number of Asian countries, including India and China, made use of domestic food reserves and trade policies to mitigate the local effects of more volatile international food prices. But African countries lacked food reserve mechanisms and were hampered by longstanding imbalances in global trade rules that resulted in rising dependence on imported food across much of the African continent.

One policy lesson from these divergent trends is that some market smoothing measures such as food reserves and more balanced trade policies can be beneficial for mitigating hunger, especially in times of crisis. Yet developing countries have been given the exact opposite advice from bodies such as the G20 and the World Trade Organization. It is time to explore in a more meaningful way the kinds of roles that directed food policies can play in building resilient food systems within countries.

Developing countries’ ability to grow their own food is also under threat as a ‘global land grab’ has taken hold. Wealthy foreign investors have snapped up huge amounts of land in developing countries in recent years as speculative investments. An Oxfam report released earlier this month notes that two thirds of these land deals have taken place in countries that are experiencing high levels of hunger. According to Oxfam, the amount of land purchased in this way could have grown enough food to feed a billion people. Yet most of that land is either sitting idle or cultivated with crops (often biofuel crops) that are strictly for export.

Foreign investment in developing country agriculture can have positive impacts, but it should not take place at the expense of food security for local people. Earlier this year governments agreed to the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests under the auspices of the UN. Other initiatives include the World Bank-led Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (PRAI). These initiatives need to be both consolidated and strengthened as part of broader initiatives to address global hunger. Crucially, the voices of local communities have to be heard in the intergovernmental and national debates on this issue.

The UN Committee on World Food Security meets in Rome this week and many of these issues are on the table for discussion. The new FAO data on hunger statistics provides both some new optimism and a reminder of the work that still remains to be done.

Jennifer Clapp is Professor and Faculty of Environment Chair in Global Environmental Governance, University of Waterloo

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One Response to “New UN Hunger Numbers No Reason For Complacency”

  1. Timothy A. Wise says:

    Excellent analysis,but beware those new hunger numbers. What is widely reported as a measure of hunger is more precisely a measure of extreme and chronic undernutrition. That is the definition used by the FAO, and it is constructed using a measure that is misleading in two ways when it comes to our common understanding of “hunger.”

    First, it is calculated based on available calories of food in a given country and with a given distribution, but the standard for adequate calories is the minimum needed to survive while liiving “a sedentary lifestyle.” As we know, the poor do not have the luxury of being sedentary. The estimate for the number of malnourished people in the world nearly doubles, according to the FAO, if one assumes the calories required to live “a normally active livestyle.” That is, to over 1.5 billion people.

    Second, the measure is explicitly intended to estimate chronic undernourishment, defined as lasting a year. As such, the FAO states explicitly (if too far toward the end of their report) that the current measure does not capture the impacts of price spikes like the ones we’ve seen three times in the last five years. Undercounting again.

    So how many hungry people are there in the world? I’d say we still don’t really know, but the FAO number would be the most conservative one could come up with. And one more thing before anyone gets too comfortable with the FAO’s self-proclaimed march toward the Millenium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015: In absolute numbers, all of the reductions in the number of hungry people were accounted for by reductions in China, India, and Brazil, leaving the rest of the developing world with slightly declining rates of hunger but in aggregate with as many hungry people as they had in 1990. And rising numbers and, in recent years, hunger rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.