29 September 2014

The New Hunger Figures: What Do They Tell Us?

The 2014 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) was released recently by FAO, IFAD and WFP, the three Rome-based UN agencies tasked with supporting efforts to reduce food insecurity and hunger.

SOFI centres on "undernourishment" estimates.  These are generated by estimated calories from food supply (production and net imports), divided by population to get a mean per capita value.  Undernourishment is the percent of a population below a minimum energy cutoff.  To estimate this percent, a log normal distribution is assumed for calories, then a coefficient of variation is assigned (which measures the spread of the distribution) by drawing on occasional income or food consumption surveys either from the region or the country.

Undernourishment is a rough estimate of hunger.  FAO is working on making it better through the use of more surveys to test assumptions and through working with Gallup on the new experiential hunger estimate, but for now this is the best we have.  (We need a Global Database on Food Security where all the food availability/food consumption surveys are vetted, reworked and housed, but that is another story.)

So what does the latest SOFI say?

* Globally 805 million people are estimated to be undernourished in 2012-14.  This is down from 1015 million in 1990-92, a decline of about 10 million a year.   Good news, although at this rate we will only have Zero Hunger in 2084 rather than 2030.

* China is responsible for 138 million of the 210 million decline over the past two decades.  Take China's extraordinary performance out and the rest of the world does not look so great.

* The less good news is that the numbers of undernourished in sub-Saharan Africa are increasing: 176 million in 1990-92 to 214 million in 2012-14, about 2 million a year.  (See picture above for all Africa.)

* Numbers undernourished in Western Asia (Iraq and Yemen are the 2 countries accounting for most of the regional numbers) have increased from 8 to 18.5 million in the past 20 years.  A reflection of the instability and conflict in the region.

* At the country level, there are some very odd numbers in there.  For instance, Zambia is 48% undernourished, and Lesotho  is 12% and yet they have similar Gross National Income per capita at purchasing power parity ($3070 in Zambia, $3320 in Lesotho) and in terms of inequality the poorest 20% of the population captures about the same proportion of income in each country (3.6% in Zambia and 3.0% in Lesotho).

* The report picks up on the idea of "enabling environments" which has been promoted by the DFID supported Transform Nutrition research programme (IFPRI, ICDDRB, IDS, PHFI) although it does not say much about how to construct them.

* The 7-8 country vignettes are nice because they show some of the complexity involved in attempting to reduce hunger,  but we need more than the box at the end of the vignettes to draw some cross-cutting conclusions.

* The report says the MDG hunger target is within reach, but does not say what "greater efforts" needed to reach it actually means.

Given the flawed nature of the data, and the fact that there is nothing better out there, these SOFI Reports do a good job of giving us a rough sense of the direction of travel different regions are making in the fight against hunger.   But their effectiveness simply masks the need for a Global Database on Food Security.  Someone needs to step up and fund that.

1 comment:

Brad Wilson said...

This article about the hunger figures says nothing about how many of the hungry are rural. If that was looked at, it would help to answer the unanswered questions that the author raises. Not long ago the figure was that 80% of the "undernourished" were rural (75% of underweight kids in subsaharan Africa as farm kids). Likewise 70% of population in Least Developed Countries is rural. This then contradicts the myth-gone-viral that cheap farm prices for mega agribusiness (overproduction to "feed the world") are great solutions, while the few recent years where agribusiness had to pay fair trade farm prices for 4 crops caused a global "Food Price Crisis." Ok, Cargill and ADM said the sky would fall if we didn't return to export dumping on LDCs, and Monstanto strongly agreed. Really, massive & ever more severely cheap farm prices over 6 decades, (fueled by the pro-Monsanto-sales fencerow-to-fencrow overproduction,) have been the biggest problem.