Some 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger around the world, but as high as this number seems, it should still be considered progress.
The number of people suffering from hunger is down from 868 million last year, according to the State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI 2013) report, published Tuesday by the three Rome-based UN food agencies.
Among the reasons behind this progress are economic growth in developing countries - which is improving incomes and access to food - a pick-up in agricultural productivity, and increased public and private investment in agriculture.
Remittances from migrants are also playing a role in reducing poverty, according to the UN report.
The vast majority of hungry people live in developing regions, while 15.7 million live in developed countries. But despite the progress detected worldwide, strong inequalities in hunger reduction remain.
Sub-Saharan Africa has made only modest progress in recent years, and remains the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment, with one in four people - 24.8 percent - estimated to be hungry. No progress is observed in Western Asia, while Southern Asia and Northern Africa showed “slow progress”. More substantial reductions in both the number of hungry and prevalence of undernourishment have occurred in most countries of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and in Latin America. Since 1990-92, the total number of undernourished in developing countries has fallen by 17 percent from 995.5 million to 826.6 million.
The ambitious target set at the 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) to halve the number of hungry people by 2015 remains out of reach at the global level, even though 22 countries had already met it by the end of 2012.
The heads of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) called for nutrition-sensitive interventions in agriculture and food systems as a whole, as well as in public health and education, especially for women.
Last year’s UN report received a detailed critique by a group of hunger researchers, led by author Frances Moore Lappe. The publication offered specific recommendations mainly in relation to the presentation of hunger estimates and on the report’s methodology.
Researchers found that estimates represent the low end of the scale because they are based on food availability and the caloric requirements required only leading a “sedentary lifestyle”. A less restrictive FAO threshold leads to an estimate of 1.33 billion hungry in the world, rather than SOFI 2012’s 868 million, according to the group.
Another factor of concern was the focus on global hunger, which masks wide regional variation. Progress in China and Vietnam alone account for more than 90 percent of the estimated reductions in the number of hungry people in the world. National success stories, such as in Ghana and Brazil, “are lost in the global estimates, as are countries and regions in crisis”.
“This year’s report introduces important innovations. We go beyond the traditional FAO prevalence of undernourishment indicator to measure the various dimensions of food insecurity, in particular the nutritional outcomes of food insecurity,” said Pietro Gennari, director of the Statistics Division at the FAO.
“These can be measured by different indicators. In most cases, these indicators are consistent with the trends of prevalence of undernourishment, but this is not always the case, and we have studied specific countries to understand why we have these divergences and the policy measures that can address them.”
The report underlines that economic growth is key for progress in hunger reduction. “But that is not enough; targeted policies and social programmes are needed to achieve the goal of eradicating hunger worldwide,” Gennari said.
Some contest this emphasis on economic growth.
“The report offers some useful elements, like some of the new index, and more systematic information on food insecurity,” Antonio Onorati from the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty told IPS. “But when it comes to solutions, it proposes old and ineffective recipes.
“Like the idea that 600 million small producers who are food insecure simply need to increase their productivity in order to put their surplus into the market. As if the local market was functional to small-scale agriculture and to food security. It is not so.”
According to Onorati, local markets are only a reproduction of the global market, “that same market that generates crisis and even death of small farms, and which is finally a key component of food insecurity”. “We would expect a deeper analysis of the role of local markets,” he said.