Around 800 million people on the planet still go to bed hungry. The United Nation Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) World Food Day, on 16 October, urges people around the world to come together to take action to eradicate hunger. Yet most people in the developed world don’t really understand what the term “hunger” really means. It can manifest itself in different ways – under-nourishment, malnutrition and wasting.

According to the World Food Programme, undernourishment occurs when people do not take in enough calories to meet minimum physiological needs. Malnutrition is when people have an inadequate intake of protein, energy and micronutrients. Starved of the right nutrition, they can die from common infections such as measles or diarrhoea. Wasting, usually the result of starvation or disease, is an indicator of acute malnutrition with substantial weight loss.

What is food insecurity?

Being uncertain about where your next meal will come from – that’s food insecurity. The FAO defines it as a “situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development, and an active and healthy life”.

Experts disagree about the link between hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity. In an April 2015 paper, Sheryl L Hendricks, Director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being, says disputes over terminology are holding up efforts to create helpful policies and programmes, as well as creating a distraction from the need to act.

How is hunger measured?

In the year 2000, the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG1) set out to halve 1990 extreme poverty and hunger rates by 2015. To measure progress, the UN calculates the proportion of people in a country’s population who are undernourished. This means people whose food consumption is continuously below a minimum level of dietary energy requirement for maintaining an acceptable minimum body size and leading a healthy active life.

Another measure is the prevalence of underweight children under five years old in populations, which the World Bank has used in the following chart:

 Prevalence of malnutrition, weight for age
Image: World Bank

What progress has been made?

The latest FAO report, from 2015, measures progress towards the MDG1 target and World Food Summit hunger targets by assessing not only under-nourishment, but also by the prevalence of underweight children under five. The report compares progress for the two indicators across regions and over time, and is summarized in their Hunger Map.

 FAO Hunger Map
Image: FAO

Can we end hunger?

The majority of the countries monitored by the FAO – 72 out of 129 – have achieved the MDG target of halving undernourishment in their populations by 2015. But progress has been uneven. Globally, the FAO says an estimated 795 million people still suffer from chronic hunger on those measures.

The MDG1 targets end this year, and will be replaced by the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, which were launched last month and come into effect in 2016.

The Global Goals call for an end to poverty, hunger and malnutrition by 2030. Is this possible? The UN believes hunger is a solvable problem. But in order to have a possibility of eradicating it, the world needs to take action.