Industries in Depth

Have we underestimated global hunger?

Chris Arsenault
Writer, The Thomson Reuters Foundation
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This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation

Big reductions in global hunger celebrated by the United Nations can be deceptive because people need to have been short of food for more than a year to be considered hungry, a bestselling author has said.

The number of hungry people worldwide dropped by 216 million in the last 25 years to 795 million, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in May, even as the global population grew by more than 1.5 billion.


But those improvements mask statistical problems in calculating hunger, along with other problems in the world’s food system, said Frances Moore Lappe, author of more than a dozen books on food politics including “Diet for a Small Planet”.

“You could be very hungry for three months and not captured in that number,” Lappe told an audience at Tufts University in Massachusetts on Monday.

“People who are hungry between harvests, during the lean season, aren’t captured in that measurement.”

Putting too much emphasis on imperfect figures on hunger allows governments to celebrate prematurely their achievements in reducing poverty, she said.

The U.N. numbers also focus too heavily on how many calories people are consuming, rather than whether they are getting enough nutrition to sustain themselves, she said.

“Calories and nutrition are increasingly parting ways: you can get enough calories and still be nutrition deficient.”

A person must receive less than about 1,800 calories a day, enough to cover “minimal activity”, for more than a year to be considered hungry by the United Nations.

Two billion people globally are deficient in at least one important nutrient, Lappe said, blaming structural problems in food production and distribution for much of the difficulty in feeding the world’s growing population.

Global food production has grown by 40 percent per person, since 1970, she said, despite the rise in the world’s population to more than 7.2 billion from 3.7 billion.

But much of this is used to feed livestock or produce biofuels rather than going to the people who need it most, Lappe said.

Half the world’s grain is used to produce fuel, livestock feed or for other industrial purposes, she said, while livestock production takes up roughly three quarters of agricultural land.

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Author: Chris Arsenault covers global food security and agricultural politics for the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Rome.

Image: An boy from a family of labourers prepares to eat. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan.

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Industries in DepthEconomic Growth
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