#WorldHungerDay: a Celebration?

| 06.01.2016

Photo by ©FAO/Roberto Cenciarelli

A version of this post is published on the Huffington Post via Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Giménez; you can read the article on the Huffington Post here.

Saturday, May 28th was World Hunger Day. News stories, blogs, social media, and organizations are abuzz about global hunger. Everyone agrees that in this day and age, it’s unacceptable for anyone to go hungry. Awareness of global hunger is the first step in eliminating it, so this is a good thing.

Some organizations celebrated gains in hunger reduction by citing statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that claim the world has lived up to the Millennium Development Goals’ promise to cut global hunger in half by 2015. Ending hunger is hard—and we need good news. But is this actually true? A closer look at the way the FAO handles hunger statistics reveals a different, and very troubling story.

The goalposts have shifted

In 1996, 840 million people were hungry worldwide. Leaders from 185 countries met at the World Food Summit in Italy, where the Declaration of Rome was drafted. The Declaration promised to reduce the total number of hungry people by half to 420 million people by 2015.

4 years later at the 2000 Millennium Summit, the Millennium Declaration diluted the commitment laid out by the Rome Declaration. Leaders at the Millennium Summit utilized a numbers game which ultimately made the hunger reduction commitment weaker and easier to reach.

Instead of sticking to a commitment to reduce hunger by a certain number of people (420 million), they changed the goal to decrease the percentage of hungry people. Because of population growth, this adjustment meant ending hunger for only 296 million people. This slight of hand allowed leaders to claim quick progress on paper, when in reality the fight to end hunger was proceeding slower than anyone wanted to admit.

Official hunger reduction goals were again eased when the base year was backdated from 2000 to 1990. This allowed the inclusion of China’s accomplishments in the 1990s in which millions were pulled from poverty and hunger – even though China was not a part of the Millennium declaration. It also extended the period of population growth, and as a result, the proportion of people saved from hunger. This modified timeframe actually increased the “acceptable” number of hungry from 420 million to 591 million.

Hungry as not hungry enough

As if shifting the goal posts was not misleading enough, the FAO misrepresented the true extent of world hunger by using an inaccurate definition of hunger itself. The FAO only counts people as hungry when caloric intake is inadequate to cover minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle for over one year. But we know most hungry people are peasant farmers engaged in demanding physical labor, and need much more than the FAO’s “sedentary” minimum caloric threshold. Incredibly, people who go hungry for 11 months out of the year are not classified as hungry by the FAO.

If we measure hunger at the level of calories required for intense activity, the number of hungry people today is closer to 2.5 billion – and this does not count those suffering from serious vitamin and nutrient deficiencies, or those hungry seasonally or for months at a time (but less than a full year). This estimate is two times higher than the FAO’s numbers would have us believe.

Should we be celebrating success on World Hunger Day?

Through the Millennium Development Goals, the FAO misrepresented the true extent of hunger. In reality, between 1.5 and 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate food—and these numbers are rising, not falling.

If we’re ever going to end hunger, we’d better first acknowledge how many people really go hungry in this world. The FAO’s manipulation of hunger statistics into a “good news narrative” simply justifies business as usual—including 30 years of free trade agreements, land grabs, and the monopolization of land, water, and genetic resources—perpetuating a food system that leaves over a third of humanity without enough food.

Interested in learning more about the extent of worldwide hunger? Read Food First’s latest Backgrounder “The True Extent of Hunger: What the FAO Isn’t Telling You.”