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1. Definition of hunger
2. Numbers of people suffering from hunger
3. Evolution of the numbers
4. Geographical breakdown and hunger maps
5. Children suffering from hunger
6. Calorie intake levels
7. Causes of hunger
8. Consequences of hunger
9. Food security and food spending
The word “hunger” in this context does not refer to the subjective sensation that we have when lunch is late. We’re talking here about a chronic lack of food or a sudden and catastrophic lack of food (as in the case of a famine). We measure a lack of food by measuring dietary energy deficiency, which in turn us computed based on average daily calorie intake. The FAO estimates that the average minimum energy requirement per person is 1800 kcal per day. The global daily per capita calorie intake is currently about 2800 kcal. That is obviously an average, masking extreme differences between the obese and the chronically undernourished.
The FAO minimum energy requirement per person of 1800 kcal is also an average. Minimum calorie need depends on many things: age, climate, health, height, occupation etc.
Usually, the concept of “hunger” as it is defined here is different from “malnutrition“. Hunger is a lack of food defined as a lack of calorie intake. Malnutrition is a lack of quality food, of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and of a divers diet. Hence, people may have access to sufficient quantities of food and still be malnourished.
Hunger and famine are also different concepts. Hunger is a chronic and creeping lack of food, while a famine results from the sudden collapse of food stocks. A famine implies widespread starvation during a limited period. It can’t go on forever because it must stop when everyone has died. Chronic hunger on the other hand can go on forever because it doesn’t imply widespread starvation. Of course, people do die of chronic hunger, and on a global level hunger kills more people than famines do. But whereas in the case of famine people die of starvation, the victims of chronic hunger usually don’t starve to death. When we say that hunger kills someone every 3.6 seconds (see below) we usually mean that this person dies from an infectious disease brought on by hunger. Hunger increases people’s vulnerability to diseases which are otherwise nonfatal (e.g. diarrhea, pneumonia etc.). In fact, most hunger related deaths do not occur during famines. Chronic hunger is much more deadly – it’s just not as noticeable as a famine. When and where famines occur, they are more deadly and catastrophic. But they occur, thank God, only exceptionally. Hunger on the other hand is a permanent fixture of the lives of millions and ubiquitous in many countries.
Although there’s considerable uncertainty and controversy regarding the data, the best estimates claim that more than 800 million people go to bed hungry every day. 98% of them live in developing countries. That’s 15% of the population of developing countries. Roughly the same number of people are obese and another billion are malnourished in the sense that they lack micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin A, iodine, iron, and zinc (this lack of micro-nutrients is often called “hidden hunger”). Iron deficiency is the most prevalent form of malnutrition worldwide, affecting an estimated 2 billion people. Iodine deficiency is the greatest single cause of mental retardation and brain damage, affecting 1.9 billion people worldwide. It can easily be prevented by adding iodine to salt.
More than a third of the hungry are children. Every 3.6 seconds someone dies of starvation. 6 million under the age of five die of hunger every year; that’s 16.000 every day and this cause of death explains 60% of under 5 mortality. Millions of others who survive are stunted and diseased. In 2011, an estimated 16%, of children under-five were underweight. That’s over 150 million children, or one in four children in developing countries. At the same time, a third of food produced globally goes to waste.
More about the measurement of hunger is here.
Between 15 and 20% of the world’s population still suffers from chronic hunger. That’s a lot, but it’s going the right way:
Note: the FAO has withdrawn its 2009 and 2010 estimates in this graph because of higher than usual uncertainty. See here. The latest estimates, out now in October 2012, indicate that the proportion of hungry people in the world has fallen to less than 15% in 2010-12.
When you look at the actual number of people undernourished, as opposed to the percentages of world population, you don’t see a large decrease because total population numbers have increased (again, the 2009 data in the graph below have been withdrawn).
In other words, the decrease in the percentage of the world population suffering from hunger is due to the rise in the total number of the world’s population; the number of people suffering from hunger has remained more or less the same. However, the latest estimates (dd. 10/2012) point towards a reduction: an estimated number of 850 million hungry people in developing regions in 2010-12. Revisions suggest that there were nearly 1 billion undernourished people in the world in 1990, as opposed to the 833 million previously reported. This puts the MDG to halve the proportion of people who experience hunger within reach.
Here are the revisions:
The proportion of people who suffer from hunger remains the highest in sub-Saharan countries, where on average one in three people are estimated to be chronically hungry. It is estimated that half of all Indian children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.
This is the WFP map:
(source, click image to enlarge)
The countries most affected are:
Twenty-nine countries in the world suffer from “alarming” levels of hunger, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Global Hunger Index. This index gives developing countries scores based on three indicators: the proportion of people who are undernourished, the proportion of children under five who are underweight, and the child mortality rate. The worst possible score is 100, but in practice, anything over 25 is considered “alarming”. Scores under five, meanwhile, are indicative of “low hunger”. Since 1990 the overall level of the index has fallen by almost a quarter (though the data do not cover the period of the global recession beginning in 2008). Two-thirds of the 99 countries counted in 1990 have reduced their populations’ hunger levels. Kuwait, Malaysia, Turkey and Mexico have been the most successful, cutting their scores by over 60%. Those where hunger has increased include North Korea, Comoros and Congo.
Not surprisingly, children are some of the hardest hit. Every year, more than 3 million children die from malnutrition and many more are chronically malnourished. 170 million children suffer stunted growth. (About 1 in 4 children under age 5 are stunted as a result of hunger). This is a decrease by 35 percent since 1990 when the number was an estimated 253 million. High levels of stunting among children under five years of age are prevalent in Africa (36% in 2011) and Asia (27% in 2011). Stunted growth is the result of chronic nutritional deficiencies.
One way to measure malnourishment is to look at the level of daily calorie intake per person. In an age when the world is producing more food than ever before it is a scandal to see that many people have a calorie intake that is below what is necessary for decent survival (2000 calories):
Hunger is not a natural tragedy or the inevitable consequence of overpopulation. The causes of both chronic hunger and famines are political: bad governance, injustice and poor economic development. Some famines have even been the intentional and criminal actions of dictatorial governments. Draughts, crop failures or other natural disasters can make things worse, but they don’t make hunger or famines inevitable. People do. There’s is enough food to feed everyone. Amartya Sen has famously argued that famines strike without a drop in aggregate food availability.
Democracies have the information and the incentives required to act. Policy makers know what is happening and their future as policy makers depends on their effective actions. Furthermore, the freedom inherent in democracies is a prerequisite for economic development and an economically developed society will not witness famines or have large portions of its population suffering chronic hunger.
Apart from the immediate suffering caused by hunger, there are also some longer term effects. Undernourished children live in poor families and hence don’t always go to the doctor when they’re sick, and they get sick more often than other children. Inadequate nutrition lowers the immune system, increasing the risk of infectious disease. Undernourished children tend not to reach their potential, physically or mentally, and they do worse at school than they otherwise would. This has a direct impact on their employment opportunities but also on a nation’s productivity: the World Bank reckons that in low-income Asian countries physical impairments caused by hunger knock 3% off GDP. About 1 in 4 children under age 5 – that’s 165 million children - are stunted as a result of hunger.
Malnutrition is associated with over a third of children’s deaths because it is a very important risk factor in many diseases:
The Food Security Risk Index (FSRI), released by Maplecroft, is a combination of 12 indicators, measuring the availability, access and stability of food supplies across all countries, as well as the nutritional and health status of populations. Risk factors include conflict, displacement, low capacity to combat the effects of extreme weather events such as drought, water shortages, land degradation, prevalence of poverty and failing infrastructures undermining both food production and emergency food distribution capacity. In 2011, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo ranked lowest in the world:
(source, click image to enlarge)
A somewhat related map, showing the percentages of food spending in total spending:
In general, a higher percentage means more average poverty. And also higher vulnerability. If you spend 50% rather than only 10% of your income on food, you’ll be hit much harder by price hikes or income loss. And, as a result, your food supply is much more insecure.
Some numbers for the US:
The bottom 10 percent of Americans spend about 17 percent of their income on food. By contrast, the top 10 percent in India spend almost 40 percent of their income on food (source).
In 35 big famines since 1900, more than 70m people have died from famine or famine-related causes. Of these, almost half perished in one terrible event: China’s Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, which caused famine deaths of over 30m (source).
Another quarter died during Stalin’s forced collectivisation of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s (especially in Ukraine and Kazakhstan). The other huge famine was that in Bengal in 1943. Political crises have triggered famines in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1960s, including those in Ethiopia in 1983-85 and Sudan in 1998. There’s also the strange case of the North Korean famine of the 1990s.