Hunger: More Than One Number

November 18, 2013

By Joanna Mackenzie

The 2013 State of Food Insecurity in the World Report (SOFI 2013), released this fall by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, provides an update on global hunger, but also represents a victory of academics and activists who advocated, after last year’s SOFI 2012 report, for greater transparency and a more complete representation of global food insecurity by the FAO.

Last year, a group of scholars and activists, including Frances Moore Lappé, Jennifer Clapp, Molly Anderson, Robin Broad, Ellen Messer, Thomas Wise and Thomas Pogge (a member of the Global Food Ethics working group scheduled to meet in October 2014) criticized the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2012 report on The State of Food Insecurity in the World in an open letter, which was subsequently published in Ethics and International Affairs (July 2013), for failing to capture the true extent of food insecurity and hunger around the globe.

Some of their main concerns centered around the way the FAO’s primary hunger indicator, “prevalence of undernourished (PoU)” was calculated and the FAO’s narrow definition of hunger, as well as the FAO’s lack of transparency about how inadequately PoU reflects true levels of global food insecurity.

These objections implied that the FAO may have been spinning the numbers to make themselves appear more successful in meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of cutting the proportion of the world’s hungry in half by 2015, rather than accurately depicting the true number of people suffering from inadequate access to food.

One of the main criticisms of the 2012 SOFI report was that the FAO’s definition of hunger underestimates the number of hungry people because the cut-off used to define energy deprivation is set at calories needed for a low physical activity level.

According to Dr. Robert Thompson, Co-Principal Investigator for the Global Food Ethics Project, who served on the expert panel for the development of the Global Food Security Index, a project spearheaded by the Intelligence Unit of The Economist, many people, especially in countries affected the most by hunger, by necessity have much higher activity levels and therefore greater calorie needs per day . He stated that the FAO may appear to be close to reaching their hunger reduction goal because they have set the bar too low by using such criteria.

In developing countries many rely on subsistence farming and other jobs requiring hard manual labor in order to survive. Lack of access to technology also demands that many activities of daily living require more energy. Getting a drink of clean water or eating a piece of toast is simply a matter of pushing a button or turning on the tap in a developed country.

However in the developing world, in order to eat a person may have to harvest the grains, transport them, grind them by hand and then make the final product.  The only source of clean water may be miles away, and might require carrying gallons of water across that distance. Also, for many adults and children, walking is the primary mode of transportation.

In light of this information, it seems likely that the FAO is underestimating the true number of people experiencing energy deprivation by defining hunger as the inability to obtain the calories needed for a sedentary activity level.

Although SOFI13 uses the same low caloric threshold for calculating the prevalence of hunger, this time the FAO provides an in depth explanation of why this threshold, rather than a higher one is used. Their explanation is essentially that if a higher activity level were used, then all the well-nourished sedentary people would falsely be categorized as hungry, leading to a gross overestimation of hunger.

While this  may be true, the reverse may also be true. That is, by using a lower activity level, the true number of hungry may be grossly underestimated. Clearly, this matter is still open for debate,  but at least the FAO acknowledges the concerns voiced by critics.

The second objection raised by Frances Lappé’s group was that the FAO’s primary hunger indicator, “prevalence of undernourishment” (PoU) refers only to chronic energy deprivation lasting one year, a very narrow definition that fails to capture other aspects of food insecurity, the sheer purpose of SOFI.

This definition ignores the impact of short term energy deprivations, such as those caused by natural disasters, market swings or conflict and also nutrient deficiencies caused by poor diet quality. Both short-term caloric deprivation and nutrient deficiencies have long-term impacts on the health and capacity of individuals and communities over the life span.

In SOFI13, the FAO acknowledges the limitations of the PoU indicator and provides an in-depth explanation of how PoU is calculated. They also acknowledged that PoU is inadequate to fully capture food insecurity, and is not sufficient to guide policy decisions surrounding global hunger. SOFI13  highlights food security indicators as a better alternative to measuring global food insecurity and strongly recommends that these indicators be used to guide future policy decisions.

How do food security indicators function? The FAO’s set of indicators measure food security across four defining categories: availability, accessibility, utilization and stability. Alternative food security indicators, such as the Global Food Security Index are based on similar categories.

Food security indicators take into account both economic and physical accessibility, population vulnerability to hunger, shocks to food systems and malnutrition. For example, availability indicators include measures of diet quality such as reliance on starchy foods versus availability of animal proteins.

Utilization indicators address issues of micronutrient deficiencies, such as stunting, wasting, anemia, vitamin A deficiency and iodine deficiency. Short-term caloric deficiencies are represented in the food security indicators by measures such as price volatility and production volatility.

Food security indicators are a much more useful and comprehensive way of assessing global food insecurity. However, Dr. Thompson cautioned that indicators cannot be substituted for one another or aggregated into one value. Instead, the whole set of indicators, that evaluate and compare multiple aspects of food insecurity should be appraised and used when developing policies and interventions.

The FAO’s promotion of food security indicators in SOFI13 seems like a step in the right direction, since the purpose of the report, as indicated by the title, is to depict global food insecurity, a much broader concept than chronic caloric deficiency, which previous reports have mainly focused on.

Because of the objections voiced by the above-mentioned dedicated group of scholars and activists, the FAO is now more transparent about the limitations of their results and methodologies used, and provided a more complete picture of global hunger in SOFI13.

What did the group of scholars and activists have to say about SOFI13?  In a blog post, Jennifer Clapp, one of authors of the article, praised the FAO for engaging critics, but also acknowledged the need for further improvements to how global hunger is measured and reported. The FAO has taken a first step in acknowledging the weakness of their primary hunger indicator, but the real challenge lies in developing and implementing better indicators to capture the full extent of food insecurity around the world.

Joanna Mackenzie is a Registered Dietitian and Research Assistant for theGlobal Food Ethics Project at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  She is also working towards obtaining an MSPH in Health Education and Communication from the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She received a B.S. in Nutrition Science from Russell Sage College in 2010.  Prior to coming to Hopkins, Joanna was a Public Health Nutritionist for the New York State Child and Adult Care Food Program. Previous work included using nutrition interventions to enhance the quality of life of HIV/AIDS populations in upstate New York.

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Global Food Ethics
Joanna Mackenzie
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