Uncovering Undernutrition (Part I): Is there enough food?

In 1996 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) estimated that the world was producing enough food to provide each person with 2,700 calories per day. Each day an average grown man needs around 2,500 calories per day, a grown woman around 2,000 calories, and children less. In other words, in the mid-nineties, there was more than enough food to keep everyone in the world adequately fed. Yet nearly 1 billion people, around 17 percent of the population at that time, were undernourished. What was happening?

According to the FAO, undernourishment occurs when, for at least a year, a person is unable to eat enough calories to meet the minimum energy needs of an inactive lifestyle. It does not take into account the needs of those who have a physically active life, such as farmers or manual laborers, and therefore need more calories to stay strong and healthy. Nor does it take into account deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals which can have negative long-term effects on health, such as weak bones and skeletal deformities caused by a lack of vitamin D.

Based on the latest country data on population numbers, availability and distribution of food, and the ability of people to afford and physically access that food, the 2012 FAO report,’The State of Food Insecurity in the World‘ reveals a lot about undernourishment around the world over the past two decades.

Today’s global population is just over seven billion. According to the FAO, 868 million people, 12.5 percent of the total population, are not receiving an adequate quantity of food and are thus undernourished. (Deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals affect around two billion people – nearly a third of the population). So, the incidence of undernourishment, globally, has decreased since 1996’s level of one billion people. However, this general trend is misleading as in some regions the instance of undernutrition has actually increased during the last 20 years (Figure 1). Although significant progress has been made in regions such as South-Eastern Asia, where the occurrence of undernourishment has halved, in Sub-Saharan Africa it has increased by nearly 50 percent and in Western Asia and Northern Africa it has nearly doubled:

Figure 1: Number of undernourished people in different global regions in 1990-2 and 2010-12.

Source: FAO, ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World’ 2012 report.

Moreover, as Figure 2 illustrates, the poorer a country is, the higher its rate of undernourishment:

Figure 2: Undernourishment by Country Income* Level.

Source: FAO, ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World’ 2012 report.

Additionally, the type of food which is available has also changed, which is important because the composition of a person’s diet has a big impact on their short- and long-term health. This is shown in Figure 3 (which shows the food available to each person, not the food actually consumed).

Figure 3: Average Number and Types of Calories Available per Person in Different Global Regions in 1990-2 and 2007-9.

Source: FAO, ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World’ 2012 report.

Let us look at Sub-Saharan Africa as an example. About 100 calories per day come from fruits and vegetables. This is only three-quarters of the minimum amount recommended in a 2004 joint report by the FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent illnesses caused by deficiencies of vital nutrients. So not only do people in some regions suffer from a lack of food in general, but they also lack intake of very specific foods that are more healthful than others.

Figure 3 also shows that total calories consumed by the average person have increased in all regions. Yet, we know that undernutrition has actually increased in some areas. This leads to the question: why are more people going hungry if there is more food available? There must be other circumstances which contribute to undernutrition besides just the amount of food that is available. We will look at some of these issues in part two of Uncovering Undernutrition, tomorrow.

What this report from the FAO shows is that undernutrition is not caused by a lack of sufficient food in the world. The statistics show that there is more than enough food to go around, but that it is very unevenly distributed over the world. There are huge differences in the amount of food that is available in each global region, and also significant differences in what kinds of foods people eat. Both these factors are important for health.

The world’s population is set to increase to more than nine billion by 2050. If the current trends in distribution and access to food continue, simply increasing global food production is unlikely to solve the problem of undernutrition. We need to identify and address the real causes of hunger in order to find effective solutions. Part II of this post will attempt to do just that.

How do you think the problem of hunger should be addressed? Please leave a reply below.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

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For your reference:

* GDP levels are adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account the cost of living in a country.

The Economist, February 24th 2011, How much is enough? <http://www.economist.com/node/18200702>

Food and Agriculture Organization, WFP and IFAD 2012, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012. Economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to accelerate reduction of hunger and malnutrition. <http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3027e/i3027e.pdf>

Food and Agriculture Organization & World Health Organization 2004, Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Workshop 1-3 September 2004, Kobe, Japan, Fruit and Vegetables for Health. <http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/publications/fruit_vegetables_report.pdf>


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