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The Politics of Measuring Hunger
How our understanding of hunger affects the ways we address it
The most profound contradiction within the industrial food system is the paradox of historically high abundance coexisting with unparalleled levels of suffering. No matter how much food is produced, how wide we scale its production, how far we distribute it, how cheap we sell it, how effectively we poison the pests that dare to lay their limbs on it, how intensively we fertilise the soil, we cannot seem to weed the evil of hunger out of the system.
Popular narratives have us believing that we’re slowly, but steadily, inching closer to a world free of hunger — that owing to our leaps in technology, the number of hungry people is decreasing year on year. We see reports and ambitious pledges set by entities like the United Nations, claiming to have nearly reduced the population of hungry by half in just 15 years, from 2000-2015 (Millenium Development Goals), and on track to eliminate it entirely by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 2). These reports often put forth their findings as indisputable proof that their good work is filling the bellies of millions with the nutritious meals that the industrial food chain works tirelessly to produce.
Such claims are regularly used to justify the existence and influence of governments, intergovernmental institutions, and even entire economic systems. After all, these entities rely on demonstrating their commitment to addressing pervasive issues like hunger and poverty, in order to maintain their legitimacy and assert that they are actively working to improve our world — that they alone possess the resources and skills required to do so. The numbers they present shape policies, budgets, and the overall approach to addressing global hunger.
But in recent years, even the progress boasted in these statistics seems to be fading. Undernourishment, the traditional indicator employed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to gauge global hunger, is resurging, and millions more are being thrust into its clutches each passing year. Around 828 million people faced hunger in 2022. Despite the UN's pledge to eliminate hunger at the end of the decade, the FAO itself predicts that in 2030, there will still be over 660 million subjected to undernourishment worldwide.
Our current efforts to end hunger are clearly failing, even by the standards of the very institutions that are claiming to “combat” it globally. We’ve already covered why the frame of “combating” hunger is reflective of the same oppressive structures that engender it. But this newsletter will take a step further back and unpack how the way we define and measure hunger itself is extremely political and can deeply mislead our efforts to address it.
Hunger goes by many names — undernourished, overnourished, malnourished, stunted, micronutrient deficient, anaemic, and wasting. Although these are all technically symptoms or manifestations of hunger, not all of them align with its mainstream definition. Some of them are partially included, while others are entirely omitted.
For decades, the UN and FAO (who tend to be at the centre of conversations around hunger) have used “Undernourishment” and “Prevalence of Undernourishment” as the primary indicators to measure world hunger. Mainstream conversations about hunger are therefore referring solely to undernourishment and fail to factor in its other manifestations, which are far more prevalent, and often even more severe.
According to the FAO:
Undernourishment is the condition by which a household or an individual has access, on a regular basis, to an amount of food that does not cover their normal energy requirement for an active and healthy life.
The Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) is the probability that upon selecting one individual at random from the population, that person is found to be consuming, on a regular basis, an amount of food that provides less than his or her own dietary energy requirements.
Anthropologist Jason Hickel exposes the flaw in this approach. As Hickel explains,
“The UN counts people as hungry only when their calorie intake becomes ‘inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle’ (i.e. less than about 1,600-1,800 calories per day) for ‘over a year’. The problem is that most poor people don’t live sedentary lifestyles; in fact, they are usually engaged in demanding physical labour, so in reality, they need much more than the UN’s calorie threshold. The average rickshaw driver in India, for example, burns through about 3,000-4,000 calories per day.”
Hickel writes that if we were to measure hunger by more accurate standards of caloric requirements, even according to the FAO’s own data, there would be anywhere between 1.5-2.5 billion hungry people in the world. But he points out that even this is insufficient to comprehend how pervasive hunger really is. By the FAO’s definition, hunger is synonymous with caloric deficiency, or access to less than 1,800 calories over the period of one year. So who is left out of this calculation?
People who have serious micronutrient deficiencies, which the FAO admits affects 2.1 billion people worldwide, are not considered undernourished.
Individuals subjected to seasonal hunger, the most prevalent form of hunger, especially in agrarian economies, are not included in the calculation (so long as they access enough calories to stay alive). In 2020, the FAO estimated that over 2.37 billion people did not have regular access to food, but they only counted 838 million as hungry.
People who are able to access a caloric surplus (more than 1,800 calories per day) but suffer from parasites that inhibit their ability to absorb food are excluded.
People who are able to access a caloric surplus but deprived of access to essential nutrients are considered overnourished, and, therefore, not counted as hungry. In the U.S., for instance, over 40 percent of the calories consumed by children and teenagers are “nutritionally empty”.
Although there is undoubtedly overlap between these categories, it is clear that hunger is far more widespread than institutions report. If we were to expand our understanding of hunger to include those who suffer from net caloric deficits, irregular access, and nutritional deprivation, even the most conservative estimates would suggest that well over a third of the world’s population is subjected to some form of hunger.
What’s more, the FAO’s methodology for measuring hunger isn’t just flawed, but deliberately manipulative.
The goal to halve global hunger was initially proposed at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, where 186 governments pledged to achieve this target by 2015 in their Declaration on World Food Security. However, four years later, in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) changed this promise in a subtle, but profound way. Rather than aiming to reduce the overall number of hungry people worldwide, the UN's focus was shifted instead on reducing the proportion of hungry people in relation to the population, only in developing countries. The effect of this change in methodology is significant. As Thomas Pogge, the director of the Global Justice Program explains, given the fact that the world’s population was expected to grow at a faster rate between 2000-2015 than ever before, the UN would have been able to reach their new goal with a much smaller reduction in the number of hungry people. Pogge states: “the Rome Declaration promises a 50 percent reduction in the number of poor by 2015. The Millennium Declaration promises only a 40 percent reduction in this number.” (Here, Pogge uses “poor” and “hungry” synonymously.)
Moreover, Pogge points out that the MDGs also eased the UN’s original commitment by shifting its base year of comparing progress from 2000 (when the commitment was made) to 1990. Shifting the base year allowed MDGs to claim reductions in hunger before the program actually began, by factoring in China’s extraordinary progress in alleviating hunger and poverty through land reforms — even though China wasn’t even a part of the Millenium Declaration. In reality, 73 percent of the gains that the UN claimed from MDGs came from China’s progress, most of which occurred in the 1990s before the commitment was announced.
Despite these efforts to favourably adjust their metrics, until 2009, the FAO showed little progress in achieving its MDGs. However, in 2012, it announced an “improvement” in its methodology for calculating hunger, and began telling the opposite story. The 2013 MDG report announced: “Progress in reducing hunger has been more pronounced than previously believed, and the target of halving the percentage of people suffering from hunger by 2015 is within reach.”
Hickel explains how the UN’s new methodology allowed them to turn a narrative of crisis into a narrative of progress.
First, the FAO stopped using its food price forecasting model — a model that they previously used to predict future food supply and demand, and calculate the number of people who would go hungry as a result. Because of this, they avoided showing how the economic crisis after 2008 led to a sudden increase in hunger. Their argument was that the 2008 global food price crisis did not affect “developing” nations. So, the new methodology made it seem like the level of hunger stayed the same despite major food price spikes that made food unaffordable for millions around the world.
Second, the FAO adjusted its estimates of countries’ food supplies, food waste, and population sizes. They also introduced new assumptions regarding calorie access and distribution, along with revising their data on the average heights of country populations, which is used to estimate minimum calorie requirements for each nation.
As a result of these adjustments, the new calorie thresholds created the illusion of decreasing hunger, contradicting the prior methodology that showed hunger was actually rising. Here is a comparison of what the hunger numbers looked like before and after the adoption of the new methodology in 2013.
These are the figures that institutions, governments, policymakers, and society continue to rely on, to gauge the extent of global hunger — figures that not only fail to truly capture the nature of hunger, but also falsely shape our perception of the progress we're making towards eradicating it.
The implications of such narratives of false progress transcend mere optics of how hunger is perceived by the world. The way we understand, measure, and report hunger also profoundly affects the ways in which we address it on a global scale. Because hunger is predominantly understood as a caloric deficit, our dominant approach to “combating” it has resulted in a hyperfocus on yield, in order to produce more and more calories than ever before, regardless of what it costs communities and the environment to produce these calories, or whether these calories are nutritious at all.
In the last seventy years, the agricultural industry has achieved tremendous results with regard to yield, owed to the rapid technological advances of the Green Revolution. Between 1960 and 2016, the global population rose by 142%. In the same period, calorie production increased by a factor of 217% and cereal production by 193%. All of this was achieved with only a 10% increase in agricultural land use. At the same time, the price of food was steadily decreasing all over the globe.
On the surface, this looks like an incredible achievement for humanity. However, this laser focus on productivity — achieved by maximising output while minimising financial costs — has resulted in large-scale monocultures dedicated to producing only a handful of commodities through the use of intensive fossil fuel-dependent inputs.
Today, the industrial food chain is the second largest contributor to climate change.
As a result of this fixation on maximising calorie production from a small handful of crops, there’s been a 75% loss in crop genetic diversity in the past century. More than 75% of the world’s nutrition comes from 12 crops and 5 animal species, with over 60% of the world’s crop calories coming from wheat, rice, and maize alone.
This overreliance on a select few nutrient-starved crops, produced, processed, and distributed over expansive global supply chains, has resulted in further food insecurity (because of supply chain disruptions and price volatility) and widespread micronutrient deficiencies that afflict more than 2 billion people worldwide.
While the industrial food chain is extremely efficient at producing calories, it doesn’t distribute these evenly, or at all, to nourish people. Today, we are producing enough calories to feed over 10 billion people — enough food to virtually end world hunger. But, because the industrial food system is dominated by corporations, it tends to prioritise profits over people. The vast majority of calories produced (about 70%) by the industry are wasted along the supply chain or diverted towards animal feed or producing highly inefficient industrial goods like biofuels.
What’s even more telling about the failure of the industrial food chain is that it is not designed to nourish the communities that produce our food. The system's obsession with calories has compelled most farmers to abandon the diversified fields that once prioritised their sustenance. Instead, they’ve been pushed, by governments and corporations, into adopting chemical-intensive monocultures to produce cheap, nutrient-deficient food for short-term gains. As agribusinesses control every aspect of the food chain — from seeds to chemicals, production to consumption — farmers struggle to access resources and markets and are driven into dependence on corporations to source their inputs. It is no coincidence that the livelihoods of over 70 percent of the world's hungry are directly dependent on agriculture.
It is no understatement to say that the dominant approach to understanding and measuring hunger has quite literally reoriented the way in which we produce, distribute and consume food. In the mission to end hunger, food has been increasingly detached from its diverse local cultures, cuisines, and contexts, and the communities that produce it, and reshaped into a commodity-oriented towards profits and mass production.
The figures published by powerful institutions are often projected as definitive, infallible, hard facts. But it’s quite clear that our hunger measurements are contingent, more than anything else, on the intentions of the institutions measuring it, in order to shape not only our perception of hunger but also our approaches towards addressing it.
Too often, these institutions tend to present hunger in a vacuum, divorced from nature, and from other forms of human suffering. This approach frequently places blame on farmers and traditional agricultural practices, branding them as inefficient, technologically outdated, and incapable of feeding the world. In contrast, powerful institutions and corporations are often depicted as saviours. Their policies and technologies are positioned as the exclusive solutions for ending hunger, and our salvation (or our starvation) lies solely in their hands.
Most dominant approaches to measuring and addressing hunger treat it as an unforeseen consequence of a well-meaning system. But, what would it mean if, by making institutional data measurement more accurate, we recognised that hunger is actually nearly as common as nourishment in the world today? What if we stopped seeing it as a distant, marginal problem — something that few suffer from — and instead recognised that there is more than one hungry person for every two nourished? And what if we realised that all of us are more at risk of going hungry than we might believe? Would we approach it differently, then?
When the popular institutional methods of measuring hunger were developed, there was real and justified worry about not being able to produce enough food to feed a rapidly growing population. However, today, the same isn’t true. There is enough food produced globally to feed everyone on the planet.
So why do we keep treating hunger as a technical problem, rather than an issue of political will? What if we measured hunger in more diverse ways? What if we measured it morally? What if we approached hunger not by measuring how to overcome scarcity, but instead by examining how to allocate abundance? What if the institutions tasked with measuring hunger were forced to explain why record-high food production is leaving so many people without access to proper sources of nourishment?
As Thomas Pogge eloquently notes, “The morally relevant comparison of existing poverty is not with historical benchmarks but with present possibilities: How much of this poverty is really unavoidable today? By this standard, our generation is doing worse than any in human history.”
This article by Hannah Sharland for The Canary, highlights criticism at the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, where experts and activists decried corporate-driven "false solutions" prioritising profits over communities. Organisations like McKinsey were forced to withdraw after the backlash, and conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund were criticised for their financial ties in market-based climate solutions. Critics argue these approaches harm Global South communities while benefiting major polluters.
This article by Mutinta Nketani and Timothy Wise for Al Jazeera, that discusses the annual Africa Food Systems Forum, organised by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). It critiques AGRA's endorsement of industrial agriculture practices, which have proven ineffective in addressing food insecurity in Africa and have inflicted harm on the environment and small-scale farmers. The article also underscores AGRA's failure to achieve its objectives and the adverse outcomes observed in other nations following similar policies. The article strongly advocates for a shift towards embracing agroecology and prioritising food sovereignty as a more sustainable and effective approach.
This podcast episode by the ETC group where Zahra Moloo and Kelly Bronson discuss the increasing corporate control of agricultural data, and its implications on the food system. Bronson reveals that farmers don't own the data generated by modern "digital" tractors, which are owned by companies like John Deere. Farmers must pay for data services that dictate their planting decisions. The episode raises questions about data ownership, capture, and usage in agriculture, drawing from Bronson's book, "The Immaculate Conception of Data: Agribusiness, Activists, and Their Shared Politics of the Future."
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