by Priya Bapat, Humanitas Global Development
One week ahead of World Food Day, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations announced that that the number of undernourished people in the world has been revised to 870 million, down from the previous estimates of 925 million in 2010 and 1 billion in 2009. The revised statistic comes from this year's State of Food Insecurity in the World, an annual report published jointly by the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP).
While this may seem like a sign of significant progress in the fight against hunger, these statistics do not reflect a decrease in the number of hungry people in the world, but a recalculation of estimates from 1990 onward. The new estimates show that the often cited "1 billion hungry" statistic from 2009 was likely an overestimate and that the more accurate figure is close to the current estimate of 870 million.
While the new figures demonstrate that the number of undernourished people in the world has declined steadily since 1990, they also show that most of the progress was made in the years before 1997. The report warns that if the world is to reach the targets set by the Millennium Development Goals, serious efforts must be undertaken to counteract the slowdown in progress from the past several years.
What led to this revision in the official statistics? The new figures are the result of a change in the FAO methodology used to track these figures. According to the agency, updated information on population sizes of countries, revised height measurements and calculated minimum daily energy requirements, food supply and food loss, coupled with improvements in estimation techniques were used to determine the current estimates. More information on the FAO methodology can be found here.
The 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World report demonstrates how much work has yet to be done to accurately capture statistics on hunger and other development indicators. Calculating the number of undernourished people in the world is certainly no easy task, particularly when the term "undernourished" can be interpreted in different ways. Furthermore, the challenges of data collection in developing countries can yield inaccurate or incomplete information. Some progress, however, has been made. For the first time, the FAO has included additional indicators in the report that reflect the fact that food security includes more than meeting a caloric requirement. The initial set of indicators unveiled in this report include indices tracking food price and supply. While indicators that measure malnutrition are not included in this report, the FAO is working to develop additional measurements for subsequent reports.
Accurate data is essential for tracking global trends, determining the success of food and nutrition security interventions and informing global and national policies. Despite the downward revision in the number of hungry people in the world, the lack of significant progress during the past several years demonstrates that there is still a lot of progress to be made.