19 February 2013

What is the real number of hungry people in the world?

A careful analysis of FAO’s State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) and of its annexes published at the end of 2012 suggests that the FAO estimate of under-nourished people in the world (around 870 million persons) is probably largely below reality and is more likely to be somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 billion people. This is what Frédéric Dévé says in a note published on Reporterre under the title « Le nombre d’affamés dans le monde semble plus proche de deux milliards que de 870 millions» (The number of hungry in the world seems closer to two billion than to 870 million).

Dévé, an agricultural economist who worked extensively with FAO and who is currently an independent consultant, basis his statement on the fact that the estimate of 870 million which was largely repeated in the Press is an estimate that relies on the assumption that undernourished persons have a sedentary lifestyle which corresponds to an energy requirement of 1,55 times the basal metabolic rate (energy requirement at rest).

However, if one refers to the FAO/WHO norms defined in 2001, this level of physical activity corresponds to one that does not demand much physical effort, similar to that of urban dwellers spending a large part of the day seated or standing «with little body displacement (e.g. talking, reading, watching television, listening to the radio, using computers)». An agricultural worker, who relies solely on his/her own energy to cultivate, fetch water and fuelwood (this is the lot of most of the poor farmers who constitute the overwhelming majority of those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition) should be classified under the category of people with a vigorous or vigorously active lifestyle, and which corresponds to 2 to 2.4 times the basal metabolic rate.

Annex 2 of SOFI shows that if one were to consider that energy requirements corresponded to an intense level of physical activity, the estimate of the number of under-nourished would be more than 2.5 billion people. Moreover, as the graph in the SOFI Annex to which Dévé refers in his note shows, this figure has been increasing regularly since the beginning of the 90’s, instead of declining (see below).

It is therefore quite likely, unfortunately, that Dévé is right to believe that the real number of hungry persons in the world is greater than 1.5 billion, and it is also probable that this number is stable or slightly increasing, rather than following a decreasing trend as suggested by the FAO report.

Reporterre is an information website on the environment

On the same subject consult also AGTER, an association for a better governance of land, water and natural resources (in French only)                                                                     


Last update:    April 2013

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