The good news: fewer people in the world are hungry today than previously estimated, thanks to recalculations using better data and methodology. The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the prevalence of hunger in the developing world by 2015 is now within reach.
The bad news: the number of hungry people — at almost 870 million around the world, 852 million of them in developing countries — “remains unacceptably high.” Since 2007-2008, with the food crises and global economic downturn, progress in reducing hunger has slowed or stalled in parts of the world; in Western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa the prevalence of hunger has gotten worse.
These are findings from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), published in its annual report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012. In 2009 ,the FAO made headlines with its announcement that 1 billion people in the world are undernourished, so when the organization revised that number down to 870 million earlier this month it was met with a lot of press that made much ado about the original miscalculation and the reasons for it, with less said about the report’s main points on what needs to be done to further reduce hunger.
More than 23.2 percent of the developing world population is now estimated to have been undernourished in 1990-92, making 11.6 percent of the MDG target for 2015. “If the average annual decline of the past 20 years continues to 2015,” says the report, “the prevalence of undernourishment in developing countries would reach 12.5 percent, still above the MDG target, but much closer to it than previously estimated.”
Over the past two decades, different regions of the world have shown different rates of progress in reducing hunger or undernourishment, which the FAO defines as “a state of energy deprivation lasting over a year.” Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean are all on track to reaching the MDG target by 2015. Southeastern Asia made the most progress in reducing its prevalence of undernourishment from 29.6 to 10.9 percent since 1990. In the same time period, progress in Africa has slowed and Western Asia has seen an increase in the prevalence of hunger.
As outlined in the press release, the FAO recommends a “twin-track” approach to reducing hunger, “based on support for broad-based economic growth (including in agriculture) and safety nets for the most vulnerable.” Agricultural growth is seen as key to reducing hunger and malnutrition among the poorest, as a significant part of their livelihoods is based in agriculture and related activities.
Growth, however, won’t by itself go far or fast enough to help those living in extreme poverty. ”To ensure that the most vulnerable are not left behind and can also participate in, contribute to and benefit from growth,” social protection systems will have to be put into place.
The FAO also recognizes that “reducing hunger is about more than just increasing the quantity of food, it is also about increasing the quality of food in terms of diversity, nutrient content and safety” — lest we inadvertently expose these vulnerable populations to Western-style diet-related diseases.
In fact, it’s a thin line to tread. Growing incomes have allowed for greater dietary diversity in developing countries, with animal-source foods in particular being eaten in increasing proportions. As noted in the report, “with the longer-term economic growth observed worldwide since the early 1960s, growth in consumption of animal-source foods has markedly outpaced growth in that of other major food groups.” But the report also warns that the rise in consumption of animal-source foods could have “detrimental health effects and increase the risk of chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.”
So many things have gone wrong to make it such that the number of undernourished and overnourished people in the world is about the same. So as we work to reduce hunger in the developing world, it’s critical that we go about it in the right way, finding progress that’s far-reaching, sustainable and “nutrition-sensitive” so that even the hungriest populations will someday have ready and regular access to good, healthy food.
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