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How We Count Hunger Matters

  • Frances Moore Lappé, Jennifer Clapp, Molly Anderson, Robin Broad, Ellen Messer, Thomas Pogge and Timothy Wise...

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).

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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.

5 See, for example, Bassett, Thomas and Winter-Nelson, Alex, The Atlas of World Hunger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); and Barrett, Christopher B., “Measuring Food Insecurity,” Science 327, no. 5967 (2010), pp. 825–28.

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.

12 Ruel, Marie, “The Oriente Study: Program and Policy Impacts,” Journal of Nutrition 140, no. 2 (2010), pp. 415–18.

13 Fung, Winnie and Ha, Wei, “Intergenerational Effects of the 1959–1961 China Famine,” in Fuentes-Nieva, Ricardo and Seck, Papa A., eds., Risks, Shocks, and Human Development: On the Brink (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

14 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 12.

15 World Bank, Directions in Development Series, Repositioning Nutrition as Central to Development: A Strategy for Large-Scale Action (Washington, D.C.: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 2006), p. 153,

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.

24 United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report (New York: UN, 2010).

25 Please see supplementary materials that provide the calculations for these numbers at

26 Headey, Derek, “The Impact of the Global Food Crisis on Self-Assessed Food Security,” World Bank Economic Review 27, no. 1 (2013), pp. 127.

27 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 4.

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.

35 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, pp. 29, 33–34.

36 Kerkvliet, Benedict J. Tria and Selden, Mark, “Agrarian Transformations in China and Vietnam,” The China Journal 40 (1998), pp. 3758.

37 Kolavalli, Shashi and Vigneri, Marcella, “Cocoa in Ghana: Shaping the Success of an Economy,” in Chuhan-Pole, Punam and Angwafo, Manka, eds., Yes, Africa Can: Success Stories from a Dynamic Continent (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2011),

38 Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the right to food, “Contribution to the 39th Session of the Committee on World Food Security,” September 28, 2012,

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

40 Rocha, Cecilia and Lessa, Iara, “Urban Governance for Food Security: The Alternative Food System in Belo Horizonte, Brazil,” International Planning Studies 14, no. 4 (2009), pp. 389400.

41 Daviron, Benoit et al. , Price volatility and food security: A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security (Rome: HLPE, 2011),

42 UNCTAD, The Least Developed Countries Report (Geneva: UNCTAD, 2009), p. 107,

43 Rosset, Peter, “Preventing Hunger: Change Economic Policy,” Nature 479 (2011), pp. 472473.

44 FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2012, p. 33.

45 Altieri, Miguel, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995); McIntyre, Beverly et al. , Global Report: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2009).

* Frances Moore Lappé is founder of Small Planet Institute; Jennifer Clapp is the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo; Molly Anderson is Partridge Chair in Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems at College of the Atlantic; Robin Broad is a professor in the School of International Service at American University; Ellen Messer is a visiting professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Thomas Pogge is Director of the Global Justice Program and Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University; and Timothy Wise is director at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. The authors would like to thank John Cook, Sophia Murphy, Susie Walsh, Nora McKeon, and Stuart Clark for their comments on an earlier draft, FAO staff for their clarification on the data, and Ria Knapp and Taarini Chopra for their research assistance.

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Ethics & International Affairs
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