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How We Count Hunger Matters

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 July 2013


Hunger continues to be one of humanity's greatest challenges despite the existence of a more-than-adequate global food supply equal to 2,800 kilocalories for every person every day. In measuring progress, policy-makers and concerned citizens across the globe rely on information supplied by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an agency of the United Nations. In 2010 the FAO reported that in the wake of the 2007–2008 food-price spikes and global economic crisis, the number of people experiencing hunger worldwide since 2005–2007 had increased by 150 million, rising above 1 billion in 2009. However, in its State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 (SOFI 12) the FAO presented new estimates, having revamped its methods and reinterpreted its hunger data back to 1990. The revised numbers for the period 1990–1992 to 2010–2012 reverse the trend to a steadily falling one. Based on the FAO's new calculations, extreme undernourishment peaked in 1990 at a record-breaking one billion, followed by a significant decline through 2006, when progress stalled but did not reverse (see chart below).

Policy Brief
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2013 

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1 Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), FAOSTAT, “Food Balance Sheets” (Entry: World + 2009),

2 FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010 (Rome: FAO, 2010), p. 9, Figure 1,

3 FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 (Rome: FAO, 2012),

4 Ibid., p. 9, Figure 1.

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6 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 50.

7 Ibid., p. 12.

8 FAO publications online, “The State of Food Security in the World 2012: Food Security Indicators”,

9 The “normal” physical activity level in the online Food Security Indicators is defined at a lower threshold than in SOFI 12.

10 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 55.

11 Ibid., p. 12.

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16 FAO, Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action (Rome: World Food Summit, November 13–17, 1996), Item 1;

17 FAO, Declaration of the World Summit on Food Security (Rome: World Summit on Food Security, November 16–18, 2009),

19 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, Technical Note, p. 14.

20 Ibid., pp. 54–56.

21 FAO, “Voices of the Hungry: An Experience-based Food-Security Indicator,” Food Statistics Division, 2012,

22 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 8.

23 FAO, Rome Declaration and Plan of Action (Rome: World Food Summit, November 13–17, 1996), Item 7.

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28 Ibid., p. 46.

30 The DRC experienced a 32 million rise in the number of undernourished people between 1990–1992 and 2005–2007, which is the most recent FAO data (FAO, The State of Food Insecurity 2010, p. 52, Annex 1, Table 1); and the increase in the number of undernourished in the region between 1990–1992 and 2010–2012 was 64 million (FAO, The State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 9, Table 1).

31 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 27.

32 Ibid., p. 15, Figure 6.

33 Ibid., p. 9, Table 1.

34 World Bank Data online, “GDP per capita growth (annual %)”, See also FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 48.

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39 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 37.

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