Science - October 13, 2012

Higher food prices do not lead to more hunger

Do higher food prices lead to more hunger in the world? The FAO thought so for years. But this is wrong, says the FAO now.

The 'food crisis' of 2008 could have caused the number of undernourished people to increase to a billion. But the world hunger count has remained at 870 million. How can this be? 'The FAO forecasted even in 2009 an approaching peak in the number of undernourished people due to higher food prices,' says Gerdien Meijerink of LEI. 'This peak has now disappeared.' There is no direct link between high food prices and hunger in the world, she says. The FAO had thought so in the past, but that was because the model used by this world food organization has fallacies.
Another way
'The FAO uses an American model which calculates the amount of food which countries have to import to feed their populations. Higher import prices lead to higher local food prices which the population have more difficulty paying for. This would lead to a rise in the number of undernourished people. But people react in another way to rising prices. Research done by the Institute for Development Studies points out that people keep on buying rice and potatoes even when the prices of these have gone up, and save on meat and fish instead. The quality of their food has gone down but they have enough to eat.'
More income
Moreover, says Meijerink, the FAO did not consider the economic growth in many developing countries. 'Particularly in Asia, the economic growth has given people more income and caused the demand for food - especially meat - to increase. As such, the price of fodder, i.e. the price of grain, also goes up. But since the population has more disposable income, it can afford to pay more.' However, this argument should not be applied to all countries, stresses Meijerink. 'Despite its economic growth, India still has the highest number of undernourished people. This is due to the low incomes and how food is distributed in that country. India is a paradox: it has large quantities of food reserves, but these cannot reach its population because of inefficient distribution.' This too has not been taken into account in the overall FAO model.
Stupid mistakes
'The FAO only looks at the calories available for the population,' Meijerink continues to explain. 'In January, an FAO conference discussed the issue: how do you measure hunger? That has resulted in huge debates, but no consensus.' The FAO method is not very accurate, says Meijerink, but it does reflect the general trend well. But this UN organization would need to collect better data. 'Everyone is aware that data which the FAO gets from developing countries is shaky. But in its calculations in 2009, the FAO underestimated the number of Chinese and counted too many people for Bangladesh. These are just stupid mistakes.'
Accomplishment
If the latest calculation by the FAO is correct to some extent, there are now 870 million undernourished people in the world. That is about the same as 10 and 20 years ago. This number is still on the high side, says the FAO. And yet, it shows charts with a declining hunger trend where the percentage of hungry people has been decreasing for years. In the last 12 years, the population on the Earth has increased by a billion, but has not been accompanied by a growth in the number of undernourished people. This wonderful accomplishment is due to the economic growth in many countries, says Meijerink. Now that the world economy is not doing so well, the percentage of people who will go hungry could be on the increase though.

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