In a globalized world where language and technology are becoming standardized, we, as a global community, have also attempted to standardize the meanings of concepts so complex that they cannot be so easily defined. Examples of this include the inception of global definitions for hunger, poverty, and economic growth — the definitions of which are now products of global institutions. Yet, these global institutions can sometimes get it wrong, or better yet, they can reshape the meaning of a concept to fit their practical needs.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an organ of the United Nations, has as its mission “achieving food security for all,” and has as its mandate “to improve nutrition, increase agriculture productivity, raise the standard of living in rural populations and contribute to global economic growth.” Despite its announced efforts to achieve the eradication of hunger, the FAO has skewed its progress by redefining the meaning of global hunger.
In 2010, the FAO published a report claiming that “in the wake of the 2007-2008 food-price spikes and global economic crises, the number of people experiencing hunger worldwide had increased by 150 million.” That same year, the FAO projected that “food production must increase 70% by 2050 to meet the growing demand of an expanding population.” Granted, investment in food commodities has “jumped from $65 billion to $126 billion in the past five years;” but the irony of this lies in the fact that the FAO in 2012, decided to redefine hunger, altering its projections on food production and on the food commodities futures market. In 2012 the FAO published The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 (SOFI 12), where it re-conceptualized the meaning of hunger; thus, the new calculations made it seem like undernourishment peaked in 1990, declined until 2006, and from then on plateaued. Furthermore, the FAO announced that according to new estimates, “progress in reducing hunger during the past 20 years has been better than previously believed, and that, given renewed efforts, it may be possible to reach the MDG [Millennium Development Goal] hunger target at the global level by 2015.”
These “renewed efforts,” however, include the FAO’s new methodology for defining hunger. The new methodology has affected the numbers of those listed as “undernourished,” thus, skewing the reality of the world’s hunger situation. In doing so, the FAO has created an illusion of significant global progress with regards to reducing the world’s hunger. With food prices increasing steadily, it seems counterintuitive that there would be a decline in the number of the world’s undernourished.
What can be done to prevent such a skewed illusion of reality? First, it is important that awareness is brought to the issue—that the FAO has re-conceptualized the meaning of hunger, thus affecting the number of people who fall under the category of undernourished. Second, if there is a misconceived notion of world hunger, specifically a misconception of the number of people who are undernourished, then there will be a misconceived notion of the amount of food commodities being produced and how broadly they are distributed throughout the world. As a result, speculation of the agricultural-commodities futures market could be misconstrued to predict an outcome that would seem beneficial to the world’s hungry.
Has the FAO come one step closer to achieving its goal of ending world hunger? To determine this, one must truly delve into the process behind the statistics.
As a starting point on this question, a number of experts on food security released a paper in June of 2013 entitled, “In Response to The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.In its critique of the FAO’s new methodology, the authors note that The FAO bases its estimate of the number of hungry people – now 868 million people – on a calorie threshold below the minimum required for a “sedentary lifestyle” and lasting more than one year. It thus seems sure to gravely underestimate hunger as commonly understood.” The report goes on to note that “[i]n so doing, the report does not capture the extent of hunger as it is commonly understood; nor does it capture “the state of food insecurity” (presumably the opposite of FAO’s definition of food security) carried in the series’ title.” The authors recommend that “the FAO to present the extent of hunger or undernourishment as being within an estimated range—currently between the 868 million people the FAO describes as experiencing extreme, chronic undernourishment and the 1.33 billion people it describes as “food inadequate.”
Why this change in calculating the number of hungry people around the world? Perhaps that FAO wants to achieve its goals set forth in the Millennium Development Goals established by the UN to cut in half global poverty is a reason. Redefining hunger is one way to achieve this goal. More importantly, reducing hunger is the critical goal and redefining the term will undoubtedly leave millions in a state of perpetual hunger and ignored by the rest of the world.