News | Globalization - Africa - Commons / Social Infrastructure - Food Sovereignty Global Hunger Is Worse Than You Think

To defeat hunger around the world, we must rethink how we measure it



Jan Urhahn,

A child eats from a metal bowl in Sokode, Togo.  Photo: IMAGO / photothek

The paradox of our industrial food system is that abundance goes hand in hand with an extraordinary amount of suffering. No matter how much food is produced, how cheaply it is sold, how many hazardous pesticides are sprayed onto the crops, and how much artificial fertilizer is pumped into the soil, world hunger will not end.

Jan Urhahn is the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Food Sovereignty Programme based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Agribusiness, governments, and international organizations would have us believe that we are slowly and steadily approaching a world without hunger. Their figures influence policy, budgets, and the overall approach to tackling world hunger. But even the progress touted by these statistics seems to have dwindled in recent years.

Undernourishment, the traditional indicator used to measure hunger by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has been on the rise for several years. In 2022, 828 million people were affected by hunger. Despite the promise to eradicate hunger by the end of the decade, even FAO expects that more than 660 million people worldwide will still suffer from undernourishment in 2030 — notwithstanding the fact that the way we define and measure hunger is extremely political and manipulative.

The FAO’s Manipulative Methodology

For decades, FAO has used undernourishment as one of the main indicators to measure global hunger. According to it, people are only hungry when their yearly calorie intake is “inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle” (which is equivalent to less than 1,600–1,800 calories per day). The problem is that most people living in poverty do not have a “sedentary lifestyle” but usually one of daily arduous physical labour, and thus need a lot more calories than the amount set by FAO. For example, a rikshaw driver in India burns about 3,000–4,000 calories per day.

Who is excluded from FAO’s measurement of hunger?

  • People with severe micronutrient deficiencies, which affect 2.1 billion worldwide according to FAO.
  • People who experience seasonal hunger (i.e., just suffer hunger for weeks or months, but not year-round). This is the most frequent form of hunger, affecting an estimated 2.37 billion people in 2020 according to FAO.

The FAO’s methodology for measuring hunger is not only flawed but also deliberately manipulative. In 1996, at the World Food Summit in Rome, 186 governments signed the Declaration on World Food Security, committing to cut world hunger in half by 2015. Four years later, in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) made subtle but profound changes to this pledge. Instead of reducing the total number of people affected by hunger worldwide, the MDGs focused on reducing the proportion of hungry people within the population, and only in the countries of the Global South.

The global industrial food system is efficient at producing calories, but it does not distribute them fairly.

The implications of this change in methodology are significant: While the Rome Declaration promised a 50 percent reduction in the number of hungry people by 2015, the MDGs only commit to a 40 percent reduction. Moreover, the MDGs further weakened the original UN pledge by pushing back the base year for comparison from 2000 (the year the pledge was made) to 1990. This shift made it possible to assert a reduction in hunger before the MDGs even came into effect. Seventy-three percent of the achievements claimed by the UN regarding the MDGs can be attributed to progress made by China, most of which happened in the 1990s.

Despite these efforts to adapt its metrics in a favourable way, by 2009 the FAO had made little progress towards achieving the MDGs. In 2012, the FAO announced an “improvement” to its methodology for measuring hunger. Among other things, it introduced new assumptions regarding access to and distribution of calories and revised the data on the average body size used to estimate minimum calorie requirements for each country. As a result of these and other adjustments, the new calorie limits gave the appearance that hunger was decreasing, contradicting the results of the earlier methodology which showed that hunger was actually on the rise.

A New Strategy to Fight Hunger Is More Needed than Ever

The way we understand, measure, and report on hunger has profound implications for how we address it at the global level. Because hunger is primarily understood as a calorie deficit, the prevailing approach to ending hunger has focused excessively on crop yields, productivity, and the generation of more and more calories without considering their nutritional value.

This focus has enabled the agricultural industry to achieve large yield increases over the last 70 years. From 1960 to 2016 calorie production increased by 217 percent and grain production by 193 percent as food prices steadily declined, mostly due to subsidies. On the surface, this seems like an extraordinary achievement for humanity, but the problem of global hunger remains largely the same and other issues have been exacerbated. The focus on productivity — achieved by maximizing production and minimizing financial cost — has led to large monocultures, geared towards the production of a handful of commodities through the intensive use of fossil fuel-dependent fertilizers and pesticides.

A recent study also found that six out of nine planetary boundaries have already been crossed due to human-induced pollution and the destruction of the natural world. Planetary boundaries are the limits of important global systems —such as climate, water, and biodiversity — beyond which we risk the collapse of the planetary systems that support life as we know it today. One of these boundaries involves the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment. Though both elements are essential for life, the excessive use of artificial fertilizers has left many bodies of water heavily polluted with them, which can lead, for example, to marine dead zones.

According to the FAO, three times the safe amount of nitrogen is applied to fields every year. As a result of the fixation on maximizing calorie production, genetic diversity has also declined by 75 percent in the last century. More than 75 percent of the world’s food comes from twelve crops and five animal species, with over 60 percent of the calories produced worldwide coming from wheat, rice, and maize alone. Industrial agriculture is also the second largest contributor to climate change today.

It is time that the FAO, many governments, and policymakers profoundly rethink their approach to global hunger.

The global industrial food system is efficient at producing calories, but it does not distribute them fairly. In theory, we produce enough calories to feed more than 10 billion people — practically enough to end world hunger. However, around 70 percent of the calories produced by the agricultural industry are wasted along the production chain or are diverted towards the production of fodder or highly inefficient industrial commodities such as agrofuels. Most mainstream approaches to measuring and addressing hunger treat it as an unforeseen outcome of a well-intentioned agricultural system.

But what would happen if we treated hunger not as a technical problem but as a question of power? How would things change if we approached hunger not from a perspective of overcoming scarcity but by redistributing abundance?

For this to happen, we need to acknowledge the real extent of global hunger and the real causes of hunger. These are often linked to the discrimination that marginalized populations face, the criminalization of activists, and unfair access to and control of (natural) resources, which in turn are related to unjust power relations in societies.

Ending destructive agricultural practices that lead to massive deforestation, habitat loss, and pollution is an urgent task. It is time that the FAO, many governments, and policymakers profoundly rethink their approach to global hunger.

Translated by Andrea Garcés and Eve Richens for Gegensatz Translation Collective.