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FAO: There may not have been 1 billion hungry

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said today that the number of hungry people in the world between 2010 and 2012 was 870 million, and that that number of chronically malnourished people in the world in 2009 probably never hit 1 billion as the agency contended at that time.

In releasing its annual “State of Food Insecurity in the World” report, FAO acknowledged that its methodology in calculating the 1 billion figure was faulty, the Associated Press reported from the FAO headquarters in Rome.

FAO officials acknowledged that they used data from non-U.N. sources to make a quick calculation of the number of people who were expected to go hungry in the economic crisis. The 1 billion figure made headlines and led to a high-level summit at FAO headquarters and the G-8 countries calling for a multiyear program of food aid and agricultural development assistance that many nongovernmental groups have used the basis for report cards for international assistance.

“There was considerable fear that that combination of lower incomes and higher prices was going to cause significant undernourishment," said Jomo Kwame Sundaram, FAO's assistant director-general for economic and social development, according to the AP report.

But now, “no one really knows for sure if at any particular period whether that 1 billion figure was actually reached or not,” he added.

The error may make policymakers around the world and donors question their commitments to food aid and agricultural development when there are many other problems to address in developing countries, and is also likely to diminish the impact of arguments that corn-based ethanol is causing hunger.

“The 2008-2009 economic crisis did not cause an immediate sharp economic slowdown in many developing countries as was feared could happen,” FAO added in report. “The transmission of international food prices to domestic markets was less pronounced than was assumed at the time while many governments succeeded in cushioning the shocks and protecting the most vulnerable from the effects of the price spike.”

U.N. food agency officials tried to put the situation in the best light today. Noting that the report shows that the number of hungry people has been declining for two decades, although it slowed from 2007 to 2008, FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva, told a Rome press conference, “We have good news, we have made some progress in reducing hunger,” the AP said.

And U.N. officials also noted that 870 million chronically malnourished people is still a terrible problem.

“In today’s world of unprecedented technical and economic opportunities, we find it entirely unacceptable that more than 100 million children under 5 are underweight, and therefore unable to realize their full human and socio-economic potential, and that childhood malnutrition is a cause of death for more than 2.5 million children every year,” say Graziano da Silva, Kanayo F. Nwanze and Ertharin Cousin, respectively the heads of FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Program, said in a foreword to the report.

The report revises figures going back to 1990 and contains extensive analysis of improvements in FAO data gathering and analysis.

Today’s report also includes a number of fascinating details about world hunger:
  • Among the regions, undernourishment in the past two decades decreased nearly 30 percent in Asia and the Pacific, from 739 million to 563 million, largely due to socio-economic progress in many countries in the region. Despite population growth, the prevalence of undernourishment in the region decreased from 23.7 percent to 13.9 percent.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean also made progress, falling from 65 million hungry in 1990-1992 to 49 million in 2010-2012, while the prevalence of undernourishment dipped from 14.6 percent to 8.3 percent. But the rate of progress has slowed recently.
  • Africa was the only region where the number of hungry grew over the period, from 175 million to 239 million, with nearly 20 million added in the past four years. The prevalence of hunger, although reduced over the entire period, has risen slightly over the past three years, from 22.6 percent to 22.9 percent, with more than one in four hungry. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the modest progress achieved in recent years up to 2007 was reversed, with hunger rising 2 percent per year since then.
  • Developed regions also saw the number of hungry rise, from 13 million in 2004-2006 to 16 million in 2010-2012, reversing a steady decrease in previous years from 20 million in 1990-1992.
  • While 870 million people remain hungry, the world is increasingly faced with a double burden of malnutrition, with chronic undernourishment and micronutrient malnutrition co-existing with obesity, overweight and related non-communicable diseases.