LONDON (AlertNet) - There are fewer hungry people in the world than previously thought. That is one of the main messages from the latest assessment of global food insecurity published by U.N. agencies on Tuesday - which is good news but also a little confusing.
Using improved data and new methodology, the United Nations estimates there were 868 million undernourished people in the period from 2010 to 2012. For 2007 to 2009, the figure has been revised down to 867 million, showing a stable situation over the past five years.
Worrying trends revealed in the report were a nearly 38 percent rise in hunger in sub-Saharan Africa in the past two decades, and a steep climb in the number of hungry people in the Near East and North Africa that demonstrates the close links between hunger, food insecurity and conflict.
Overall, undernourishment fell more steeply than previously thought between 1990 and 2007, and the revised numbers issued on Tuesday imply that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving undernourishment in the developing world by 2015 is within reach, if appropriate actions are taken, the report says.
The latest figures may surprise those who remember that in 2010 the Food and Agriculture Organisation launched an anti-hunger campaign urging people to help the world's 1 billion hungry people. Now, it turns out, there may never have been that many.
After the food and financial crises of 2008, the U.N. came under pressure to produce a hunger number that reflected the impact of the crises on poor people. In a shift from its traditional methods, it turned to a U.S. government model that forecast how economic turmoil would hurt food production, consumption and trade in the poorest countries, and this led to an apparent increase in the number of food-insecure people.
In a set of FAQs released alongside Tuesday’s report, the FAO emphasised that the figure of one billion it unveiled in 2009 was just a projection. "As soon as we knew better, the 'one billion hungry' number was later revised downwards to 925 million," the FAO said. Now it has been cut again.
The report "State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012" explains why the increase in hunger from 2007 to 2010 was less severe than previously estimated.
First the FAO hunger number measures calorie intake over at least a year and does not capture the effects of price spikes, which are often short term.
Second, and most important, the economic shocks were transmitted to many developing countries less strongly than first thought.
Third, increases in domestic staple food prices were very small in the three largest developing economies - China, India and Indonesia. Some countries acted to reduce price increases, using subsidies and export bans, but many African nations did not, and were fully exposed to international price rises and the global recession.
"The experience of recent years has demonstrated that the consequences of food price rises and other economic shocks are diverse and complex, involving more than simply total dietary energy intake; they range from a deterioration of dietary quality to possible cuts in other types of consumption that are fundamental for human development and growth in both the short and longer term," says the report.
"Further improvements in the methodology, better data and a wider suite of indicators are needed to fully capture these effects," it adds.
FAO KEY INDICATORS
To that end, the FAO is presenting for the first time on its website a set of indicators that supplement the undernourishment figures and give a broader picture of hunger. They include the proportion of the poorest households’ income spent on food and the amount of cereals versus protein of animal origin in people's diets.
Another FAO initiative - a global poll that will monitor food insecurity annually based on short interviews in a large number of countries - should also help aid agencies support those in difficulty.
The key adjustments made to improve the accuracy of figures on undernourishment include fresh estimates of food supplies and their distribution among households, revised minimum energy intake based on new human height measurements, a calculation of how much food is wasted before it reaches shopping baskets, and revised population estimates.
Even so, the agency stresses that its hunger numbers are conservative because they are based on energy needs for a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, as FAO official Jomo Kwame Sundaram told reporters on Tuesday, "most poor and hungry people are expected to work hard" – and data in the report show the number of hungry people is much higher if the number of calories needed for a physically active life is used instead.
Overall, there has been progress in reducing hunger over the past two decades globally and in some regions, mainly in Southeast and East Asia, the report says. The proportion of the world’s people that are undernourished fell to 12.5 percent in 2010-12 from 18.6 percent in 1990-92. But the number of hungry people has levelled off since 2007, the U.N. agencies say.
At a news conference on Tuesday, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva highlighted two big threats.
In Africa, the battle against hunger is being lost, he warned. Modest progress in sub-Saharan Africa until 2007 has been reversed, with hunger rising 2 percent per year since then. The number of undernourished people there has risen to 234 million, from 170 million in 1990-1992.
"The real story is that (hunger) is going up in sub-Saharan Africa, and the speed at which it's going up seems to be increasing," Lawrence Haddad, director of Britain's Institute of Development Studies, told AlertNet. "That is worrying when African economies have been growing quite well - what happens if they start slowing down?"
The number of hungry people in the Near East and North Africa has almost doubled, the FAO head said, from 22 million in 1990-1992 to 41 million in 2010-2012 - mainly because of conflicts in that region.
"This highlights the link between hunger, food insecurity and conflict, which is very, very important," da Silva said.
The two main weapons the report recommends using to fight hunger are economic growth that includes the poor, especially women, and social safety nets to protect people in hard times.
Carlos Seré, chief development strategist at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), said investing in agricultural growth is particularly effective, as it has five times times more impact on poverty reduction than growth in other economic sectors, and 11 times more in Africa.
The challenge now is to help smallholder farmers to take advantage of today's higher food prices by growing and selling more produce, while using social protection schemes to make sure poorer consumers can still afford to eat, he added.
"There is a lot more policy space to do smart things, but we all need to learn fast how to do it," he said.