Wetenschap - 23 september 2010

How do you measure world hunger?

The number of people suffering from malnutrition is going down, reported the Volkskrant last week. No, hunger is on the increase, wrote the Volkskrant the next day. What is going on, then? Is there more hunger in the world or less? And how can we know?

Peter Oosterveer, researcher with the Environmental Policy chair group:
'World hunger went down until 2007. But in the past three years it has increased from 750 to 925 million affected people. Is that growth temporary or systematic? That is difficult to say, because the causes of hunger vary from one country to another.
The calculations of the FAO and the World Bank are very model-based. They estimate the availability of food at national level and factor in what is imported from the world market. What they lack is a real insight into food distribution in a country. What percentage of the population of Mali or Tanzania really goes hungry? That is not something you can find out from these sorts of models. For instance, the availability of food over the course of a year is an important aspect. If you have had a good harvest but sell your crop for a low price and then have to buy food at high prices ten months later, the situation is not as satisfactory as the model suggests.
High grain prices on the world market play a role too, but whether they cause hunger is a moot point. I gather the food riots in Mozambique are not caused by lack of food. The protest is against high food prices, but these come about because the Mozambican metical has fallen against the South African rand, sending prices up.
Whether food is scarce or there is real hunger cannot simply be determined from a model. The best indicator of hunger in a region is the price of cattle. If that goes down, hunger increases. Cattle constitute people's savings accounts in developing countries. They sell their cattle if they are hungry, and the price goes down.'