The hunger numbers: are we counting right?


This trend has long been a thorn in the side of the United Nations, although they’ve managed to make the story a bit more palatable by shifting the goal posts. When the millennium declaration was signed in 2000, the goal was now to halve the proportion of hungry people rather than the absolute number, which made it easier to achieve. The MDGs also pushed the base year back to 1990, which allowed them to claim China’s progress during that decade even though it had nothing at all to do with the millennium campaign. Even so, it was clear to all that global hunger was getting worse, not better.

Then, at the end of 2012, the news changed. With only three years to go before the expiry of the MDGs, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) announced an “improved” methodology for counting hunger. And the revised numbers delivered a rosy tale at last: while 23% of the developing world was undernourished in 1990, the UN was pleased to announce a reduction down to 15%. The goal still wasn’t in reach, but at least the millennium campaign could finally claim some progress.

How did the FAO manage to transform a steadily rising trend into a steadily falling one? The technicalities are a bit opaque: it has to do with retroactively revising estimates about food supplies, and new assumptions about access to calories. The FAO has given its reasons for the switch: it states that when the 2009 and 2010 hunger numbers came out, they showed a “dramatic increase” in the number of hungry people due to the food price crisis that had been spurred by reckless financial speculation and sparked riots across much of the developing world.

“The jump in the number of undernourished, posited to have occurred in 2009, led commentators to voice concerns about the reliability of the FAO method to estimate the number of hungry. These concerns culminated in the request to FAO by the Committee of World Food Security to organise a technical roundtable to discuss the FAO measures of undernourishment.” The revisions ensued and the new numbers reported that undernourishment was constant – and even decreasing slightly – during the food price crisis.

The FAO has come under fire for the decision to change the methodology of a 25-year longitudinal study just three years before its conclusion, which is bad practice by any scientific standard. But in addition to this, a number of scholars have raised questions about the definition of hunger itself, claiming that it “gravely underestimates” the scale of the problem. The FAO counts people as hungry only when their caloric intake reaches rock-bottom levels, “inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle” or “minimal activity” for “over a year” (around 1,800 calories per day). The problem is that most poor people don’t live sedentary lifestyles; in fact, they are usually engaged in demanding physical labour, so in reality they need much more than the FAO’s caloric threshold. The average rickshaw driver in India, for example, burns through about 3,000-4,000 calories per day.

The FAO itself recognises this flaw. It concedes that “ideally, undernourishment should be assessed at the individual level by comparing individual energy requirements with individual energy intakes,” but says that this approach is just not feasible when it comes to gathering data.

So what happens if we measure hunger based on the calorie needs for a population engaged in normal or “intense” activity? Using those standards, between 1.5 and 2.5 billion people are hungry, according to the FAO, which is two to three times as many as the millennium campaign would have us believe. And the numbers are rising, not falling, even according to the new methodology. And if we take China out of the equation, things look even worse. 73% of the progressthat the UN claims against hunger comes from China, mostly in the 1990s, as a result of aggressive land reform. China’s gains mask the fact that most other developing countries have seen a net increase in the number of hungry people, even according to the FAO’s most conservative definition.

Other problems with the methodology? It only counts calories, so people who have serious deficiencies of basic vitamins and nutrients (which even the FAO admits affects 2.1 billion people worldwide) are not counted as undernourished. People who suffer from parasites, which inhibit food absorption rates, also fall through the cracks. And people who are hungry for periods less than a full year are for some reason not counted as hungry, as long as they consume enough calories to keep their hearts pumping.

Of course no methodology is perfect. But later this year the UN will launch the new sustainable development goals (SDGs), with the headline goal of eradicating poverty and hunger once and for all. If this project is to have any credibility, it needs to adopt a more realistic measure of hunger. It needs to tell the truth about the fact that at least 2 billion people, nearly a third of humanity, cannot access adequate food. And this despite the fact that we collectively produce enough to feed everyone in the entire world at 3,000 calories per day. As Yale Professor Thomas Pogge puts it: “Somebody, somewhere, needs to speak the truth, needs to say that the poor have been dramatically betrayed.”

This is important, because it compels us to question whether our global economy is actually on the right track after all.

What if we were serious about ending hunger? What would it take? The UN tells us that economic growth is the solution, but this is clearly not working. Even theFAO reveals that “the link between growth and nutrition is weak.” What we need, rather, is to put productive resources back in the hands of poor people. We need to reverse the land grabs that have recently transferred 133 million acres from small farmers to big investors. We need to put the brakes on the monopolisation of land, seeds, and supply chains by corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta. And we need to end the Western agricultural subsidies that undercut local food markets in the global south. The data is clear that small-scale, regenerative farming does a much better job of feeding people, and while actually reversingclimate change – an added bonus.

Of course, all this will require much more than just charity. It will require political courage – the courage to challenge the corporate power that is quickly appropriating our food systems. As long as we continue to obscure the truth about global hunger we are unlikely to recognise the urgency of taking this step.


Jason Hickel is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics.Follow@jasonhickel on Twitter

Source: The Guardian


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