Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Chronic hunger persists, says FAO, but doesn’t tell us why

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The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has released new estimates of the number of chronically hungry in the world. The numbers themselves are quite terrifying, because the fact that there are so many chronically hungry even while the CGIAR assures us that global wheat stocks are a comfortable 175 million tons, means quite simply that food is being inequitably distributed, with terrible consequences.

It is this reason that seems to compel the FAO to speak in two voices in its current set of briefings. On the one hand, the organisation must call attention to the widespread nature of hunger and its persistence. On the other, it refuses to describe honestly the economic conditions and market influences that make the distribution of food inequitable.

That is why in his statement on 14 September 2010, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said “In this regard, stable and effective policies, regulatory and institutional mechanisms and functional market infrastructures that promote investment in the agricultural sector are paramount” instead of also recognising the food and price inequalities that exist in the seven countries in which two-thirds of all undernourished people live.

Mr Diouf knows the numbers, surely he knows the reasons those numbers are there? But no, instead he said, “The reformed Committee on World Food Security (CFS) which will meet next month opens new opportunities for dialogue and coherence in policy and action among all relevant actors in the fight against hunger. We should not miss such opportunity.” This month, next month, this year, next year. With respect, Mr Diouf, your organisation has already missed the opportunity.

Still, the FAO’s release is worth posting. Here are the main points:

At close to one billion, the number of undernourished people in the world remains unacceptably high in 2010 despite an expected decline – the first in 15 years. This decline is largely attributable to a more favourable economic environment in 2010 – particularly in developing countries – and the fall in both international and domestic food prices since 2008. The recent increase in food prices, if it persists, will create additional obstacles in the fight to further reduce hunger.

(The bit about “decline is largely attributable to a more favourable economic environment” needs some elaboration.)

FAO estimates that a total of 925 million people are undernourished in 2010 compared with 1.023 billion in 2009. That is higher than before the food and economic crises of 2008-2009 and higher than the level that existed when world leaders agreed to reduce the number of hungry by half at the World Food Summit in 1996.

Global cereal harvests have been strong for the past several years, even as the number of undernourished people was rising. The overall improvement in food security in 2010 is thus primarily a result of better access to food due to the improvement in economic conditions, particularly in developing countries, combined with lower food prices.

(The bit about “overall improvement in food security in 2010” needs some explanation.)

In parallel, international and domestic cereal prices have declined from their 2008 peaks, reflecting two consecutive years of record yields. While production in 2010 is forecast to be lower, the overall supply situation is considered as adequate. However, food prices in most low-income food-deficit countries remain above the pre-crisis level, negatively affecting access to food by vulnerable populations.

(The bit about “negatively affecting access to food by vulnerable populations” – think food riots and desperation, as happened in Mozambique two weeks ago.)

The analysis of hunger during crisis and recovery brings to the fore the insufficient resilience to economic shocks of many poor countries and households. Lack of appropriate mechanisms to deal with the shocks or to protect the most vulnerable populations from their effects result in large swings in hunger following crises.

Developing countries account for 98 percent of the world’s undernourished people. Two-thirds live in just seven countries (Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan) and over 40 percent live in China and India alone.

(The bit about “resilience” and “shocks” needs elaboration, especially since the world’s undernourished have had no role to play in the designing of an economics of shock and hunger.)

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