Hunger games: changing targets and the politics of global nutrition

Lower targets are easier to meet. Gates Foundation/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

During the United Nations General Assembly meetings this week, Ban Ki-Moon has convened a high-level side event on the Zero Hunger Challenge. This initiative by the UN Secretary-General bears the tag line “Hunger can be eliminated in our lifetimes”.

Specifically, the challenge asks the global community to pledge commitment to meeting five goals:

  • zero stunted children in two years
  • 100% access to adequate food all year round
  • sustainability of all food systems
  • 100% increase in productivity of smallholder agriculture
  • zero loss of food through waste.

The Zero Hunger Challenge works in much the same way as the Make Poverty History campaign. Even if unachievable, there is merit in setting out goals as core aspirations for the global community.

So, if the goal of “zero hunger” is unachievable, what level of progress should we aspire towards? And how can we measure this success, given our woeful history of defining and calculating global hunger?

Makeshift methodology

The Rome Declaration of the 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) called on the global community to:

reduce by half the number of chronically undernourished people on the Earth by the year 2015.

This aspiration was historic because it invoked a precise statistical target.

But asking the world to halve the number of chronically undernourished people by 2015 implied that the summiteers knew how many of these people there were in 1996. After all, you can’t aim to halve something you don’t know the size of.

Measuring nutrition and access to food is still a challenge. Feed My Starving Children/Flickr, CC BY

At the 1996 WFS, estimates of undernourishment were calculated largely through the use of Food Balance Sheets (see technical background document 14). These are estimates of calorie availability at the national level generated from statistics of food production and trade.

Per capita equivalents were then generated by dividing national calorie availability by countries’ population. Undernourishment was then calculated by comparing these data against estimated minimum dietary energy requirements of people within those populations.

The crudity of statistical data available in 1996 meant that this relatively makeshift methodology was the best for its time. It goes without saying that the ensuing estimates were highly doubtful.

Not coincidentally, summary documents from the 1996 WFS avoided mention of precise estimates of undernourishment. However, background technical paper 1 from the summit revealed an estimate of 839 million people as of 1990-92.

This baseline defines the summit target as aiming to reduce global undernourishment to approximately 420 million by 2015.

Changing the goalposts

Just a few years after the WFS, the use of statistical targets to define progress against hunger was given further impetus in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

But the MDGs significantly changed the goalposts. Rather than aspiring to halve the absolute number of undernourished people, the MDG target specified a halving of the proportion of the global population living in hunger.

Because of global population growth between 1990 and 2015, this change represented an eminently more achievable target. The original baseline WFS estimate of 839 million undernourished people represented 21% of the global population in 1990.

The latest targets estimate 805 million people worldwide are undernourished. Feed My Starving Children/Flickr, CC BY

A halving of this proportion (to 10.5%) by 2015 (when the world’s population had grown to approximately 7.2 billion) recalibrated the target to 750 million. Hence, the sleight of hand in the MDGs allowed the world to add another 330 million undernourished people and still meet global hunger targets.

More confusion

Over subsequent years, the picture has become murkier still, as previous year data has been subjected to continual revision. The baseline estimate (21% undernourished in 1990-92) was radically revised down to 16% in 2008, and was then edged upwards to 18.6% in 2012.

The changes in 2012 were connected to a major overhaul of methods of estimating undernourishment. One of the implications of this was to dramatically alter estimation of the food availability and calorie norms that were necessary for meeting minimum requirements for basic nourishment.

So while the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) authoritatively told the world in 2009 that 1.09 billion people or “more than one sixth of humanity” were undernourished, by 2012 this statistic had been scrubbed from the official record and replaced by the more modest (though, it needs to be said, still unacceptable) estimate of 867 million.

As time has progressed, the FAO has been able to augment Food Balance Sheet data with household surveys, which provide a stronger basis for estimating minimum dietary energy requirements within a population.

But the places with the highest levels of hunger inevitably have weaker and more unreliable systems for collecting household survey data. Even in countries with relatively robust data collection infrastructure, such as India, problems abound.

The countries with the highest levels of hunger have the weakest data. Gwenael Piaser/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Within the field, there are still intense debates about how to account for reference periods (survey data collected in harvest seasons will produce vastly different results from that collected in off-harvest periods), how to measure out-of-home eating (which is difficult to capture in household surveys), how to infer individuals’ calorie requirements from national household surveys and, in the case of height-weight data, how to account for genetic differences across races.

As more attention is put into these arcane debates, the overall veracity of the headline figures that dominate UN publications comes more into question.

In 2015, the UN will finalise a series of reports that reviews progress against the MDGs. In the case of the hunger, it will likely report that the targets were “narrowly missed”, and this will justify the launching of a new set of hunger goals in the successors to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals.

In the background will be aspirational challenge of attaining “zero hunger in our lifetimes”. These efforts are worthy, but the devil, as always, is in the detail. How the world defines its nutrition targets, and what happens in the proverbial backrooms where methodologies are discussed and endorsed, will shape whether the global politics of hunger is written with the glow of progress, or the guilt of failure.