In 2012 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) attracted criticism for its methods of calculating the number of hungry people in the world in its annual report, the State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI). The debate continues in 2013, with a calculated total of 842 million, or 12 percent of the world's population, experiencing chronic hunger over the past two years.
The FAO announced in 2012 that it was exploring new ways to measure "hunger", "food insecurity" and "undernourishment" - terms that are often used interchangeably. The 2013 SOFI is an improvement over the 2012 report, say experts, but there are still problems with the quality of data.
At issue is the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) - the main indicator FAO uses to calculate the global numbers. Questions have been raised about not only how the indicator is constructed, but how it is used and who uses it to measure hunger at a single point in time and to track trends over time.
Perhaps the fiercest critics of FAO's methodology in 2012 were a group of scholars in the US and Canada, who raised their concerns in Framing Hunger: A Response to SOFI 2012.
"A measure of chronic undernourishment, [the PoU] is defined as inadequate calorie intake lasting more than one year. The estimate is based on minimal calorie requirements to engage in a 'sedentary lifestyle'. This threshold, and the requirement that the undernourishment last at least a year, makes the measure quite restrictive, as it leaves out those suffering serious hunger for a shorter period, such as from a spike in food prices," said Timothy Wise, Director of Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, one of the authors of the report.
Piero Conforti, FAO’s Senior Statistician defended the use of the PoU again in 2013 as the basis for calculation, saying that, ideally, the level of undernourishment should be assessed individually, but FAO is unable to do this with the standard data collection methods.
Day to day "individual food consumption" could be influenced by various factors, Conforti says, such as the way food is allocated in different households, the amount of energy required, and the workload or cultural and religious habits that influence the choice and quantity of food, so collecting individual data is just not practical.
Carlo Cafiero, Senior Statistician and Economist with FAO, also highlights the correctness of the methodology used by FAO, stressing that "the allegation that we do not recognize the condition of people engaged in demanding physical activity is completely unfounded: the estimates are obtained by taking into account the actual distribution of food requirement in the population, reflecting the variety of occupations in a country, with some people having sedentary lifestyles, while others are engaged in very demanding physical activities."
Conforti, who was one of the technical editors of the new report, notes that it has tried to make amends by also presenting and discussing the scale of different dimensions of food security: food availability, economic and physical access to food, and food utilization and stability (vulnerability and shocks) over time.
Each of these dimensions is measured by specific indicators, like the percentage of stunted children, reliance on cereals, food price volatility, average protein supply, number of roads, quality of water sources and political stability.
The indicators help to tell a deeper story about the causes of food insecurity and inform policy decisions. For instance, in countries like Pakistan and Burundi there is a declining reliance on cereals and tubers as staples, but both countries have a high prevalence of stunting.
In the case of Pakistan, the data shows that not everyone has access to a balanced diet, and policies to support social welfare grants and schemes to help the poor access more diverse and nutritious food might be in order. Interventions to promote breastfeeding and provide fortified food might also be important, the report notes. In the case of Burundi, the amount of food available is low, so in this instance policies should focus on increasing food production or imports.
Conforti says with its new suite of indicators FAO also hopes to address the criticism that its methodology does not capture the short-term effects of food price surges or other economic shocks.
One of the dissident scholars critical of FAO’s use of the PoU, Ellen Messer, also of the Friedman School of Nutrition and Science Policy at Tufts University, recognises the efforts being made by FAO in presenting "an additional suite of indicators that takes into consideration people's requirements for more discretionary energy intake to support healthy life, growth, and activities".
Tufts’ Wise found FAO to be "very responsive to our concerns, and that both the statistics and the framing of this year's SOFI are much more nuanced, emphasizing that national government policies, not just economic growth, are key to reducing hunger".
But the report still falls short. It does not explore the dynamics connecting the various strands that influence food insecurity, which is a "continuing challenge", Messer says. For instance, food programmes are not the only response to address stunting in all situations. "The most important interventions to reduce stunting in some cases, such as Guatemala, likely entail investments in clean water and health care to reduce morbidity and parasite loads," she notes.
"Political-economic analysts also assert food sovereignty and reduction in transnational corporate influence are important. In sum, food security is a very complex topic. FAO, in its current configuration, does not cover food security adequately in all its complexity," Messer says.
José Luis Valero Pol, an anti-hunger activist with Université Catholique de Louvain, says the multiple dimensions are "a very good addition to the report", and FAO's reports are getting better. However, examining the links and correlation between dimensions at the national level is beyond the scope of the FAO report and has to be pursued by individual or country researchers. "It would be a tricky issue for FAO in general, as the causal relationships and correlations may be multiple and confusing."
FAO has not managed to "produce comprehensive case studies analyzing all current food insecurity dimensions or longer-term outlooks for all countries", says Messer.
She notes that other UN "food agencies", such as the World Food Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, as well as the UN University, inter-government institutions like the International Food Policy Research Institute and the World Bank, produce "more timely, comprehensive, food security assessments".
Messer acknowledges the work being done by the Office of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food under Olivier de Schutter, which "plays an ever increasing role, producing individual national case studies of the right to food in selected countries".
De Schutter's "'rights-based' reports also trace the legal frameworks, political commitments, expenditures and outcomes of food and nutrition programs, and consider the impacts of the WTO [World Trade organization], trade liberalization and foreign direct investment on food availability, access, nutrition, and resilience". Messer says indicators like "gender dimensions (Who are the farmers? What resources do they control?) are significant and under-explored".
Pol believes food insecurity data needs to be "disaggregated by gender (men/women) and by rural/urban areas, so as to have a better picture", and that "If women's access to food is not visualized in those headline-catching reports, their plight will remain undervalued, and certainly unabated."
He points out that "Urbanization is a global mega-trend affecting all the countries, but it seems that a great share of hungry people remains in rural areas. How important is urban hunger compared to rural hunger? We do not know at present, and we only have estimations and outdated reports."
FAO can only be as good as countries allow it to be, Messer writes. "Countries must be receptive, have the manpower, and the member states must fund the efforts [to produce more comprehensive analyses of food insecurity]".