Hunger Map 2013. Image Courtesy World Food Programme

In its report on the State of Food Insecurity 2012 (SOFI 2012), the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) statisticians constructed a nutritional reference point that allowed food-policy experts to assert the world could be on track to meet global goals of halving hunger over the period 1990 to 2015. Each year in the new millennium, technical experts at FAO, the World Bank, and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) monitor progress on reducing the absolute numbers and proportion of hungry people in the developing world, and assess what additional efforts might be necessary to achieve World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals “halving hunger” goals. The hopeful outlook in 2012, significantly, was based on a new statistical formulation and measurement of hunger, the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU). This new metric sharply reduces hunger numbers by counting only those who do not eat enough to meet their minimum dietary energy needs to stay alive, and furthermore, experience this deprived condition for a period greater than one year. The 868 million persons who fit this severely undernourished category, thus, do not include those who suffer lack of access to sufficient food for part of a year, say, in response to volatile food prices; nor does it count as hungry individuals who fail to obtain energy intakes sufficient to support even low to moderate physical activity necessary for livelihoods, health, and growth. Estimating the numbers who fail to meet this less narrow standard raises the total to some 1.3 billion, which FAO terms “prevalence of food inadequacy,” a metric that still measures only dietary energy intake and not the nutritional quality of dietary calories, including acceptable levels of health-protecting and –promoting micronutrients and protein.

Hunger Map 2013. Image Courtesy World Food Programme

Hunger Map 2013. Image Courtesy UN World Food Programme

FAO separately monitors “food security,” a more comprehensive standard and measure, defined to exist when “all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (World Food Summit 1996). “Food insecurity” takes into account physical availability of food, economic and physical access to food, biological utilization of food intake, and stability of supply, access, and nutritional health over time. A number far larger than 1.3 billion would self-report as “food insecure,” meaning that they live in situations where they lack livelihoods to access nutritionally balanced and adequate diets, or in places where food supply and prices, and environmental and human health conditions, are likely volatile and damaging within and across years. Concerns about such environmental, price, and socio-political volatility have multiplied in the new millennium, as a result of increasing and spiking food prices, new civil wars, and changing agricultural conditions attributed to global warming. As these volatility factors intersect, the risk of hunger increases by most measures. In SOFI 2013, FAO policy makers embraced critics’ dissatisfaction with this one single undernourishment standard, and presented a “suite of indicators” providing information on “the multiple dimensions of food insecurity”, 26 indicators in total!

Civil Society and Anthropological Critiques

During the first half of 2013, a small group of critics, opportunistically networked by Frances Moore Lappe, co-principal of the Small Planet Institute, effectively questioned the overly narrow PoU standard and the report’s global emphasis on economic growth in a series of conversations with FAO technical experts. The group, who included academics and non-government food-policy advocates, argued furthermore that the target of halving aggregate world hunger did not capture or spotlight country-by-country progress or policy lessons that might be gleaned from these case studies, which featured land reform and focus on national agricultural and food-system developments in most cases, including China. Although SOFI 2012 acknowledged that “growth was not enough”, that such economic directions had to be coupled with protective safety nets for those who might be displaced by economic policies of globalization, it seemed to be suggesting that return to earlier economic-liberalization policies could be the solution for ending hunger, as if fifty years of food-policy analysis had not countered the notion that benefits of economic growth automatically “trickle down” and raise all incomes and food-security situations.

As an active participant in this Small Planet Network (SPN) civil-society effort, I concentrated on vetting the new PoU standard, and reviewed how this and other nutritional and food-security standards compared and contrasted with prior food-policy calculations. Statisticians debating hunger numbers for their own technical or political ends was not new; on the contrary, FAO historically had entertained a series of debates, questioning whether the standard for energy-intakes necessary to support basic metabolic (BMR) processes and essential activities should be estimated, based on metrics of 1.2, 1.4, or 1.54 BMR. In the 1980s, economist David Seckler and Indian statistician P.V. Sukhatme had advanced the “small but healthy” hypothesis, which asserts that small stature (stunting) is not an indicator of malnutrition or functional impairment, but a healthy adaptation of those with certain genetic backgrounds to limited food supplies and other growth-compromising parameters. Certain Indian economists and nutritionists embraced the idea, and adjusted their nutritional standards for adequate dietary intakes and nutritional outcomes downward. Such adjustments allowed Indian statisticians to reduce Indian hunger numbers by half, from roughly 40% to 20%. Critics, including anthropologists, who rejected this “small but healthy” idea, pointed out that there was no objective basis for classifying stunted children and adults as “healthy” and that individuals who grow small do so at considerable functional costs to their development and longevity. The conditions under which Indian children grow small include low levels of sanitation, coupled with high levels of illness and food insecurity. Sukhatme, it turned out, was still providing a reference point for FAO undernourishment calculations. This appeared to be the policy context out of which the very narrow FAO definition of undernourishment emerged. When I addressed these issues, my SPN colleagues were resolutely uninterested in these political-technical histories, which they termed distractions from their main political arguments and talking points.

A related argument were cultural-political motivations for selecting lower cut-offs, highlighting or down-playing higher or lower hunger numbers in particular countries. I suggested FAO officials were likely pressured by certain national delegations to minimize the numbers; who were these influential policy makers, and were they connected to Sukhatme and earlier Indian efforts to downplay hunger in that nation? Response appeared to confirm this hunch, although my SPN colleagues were surprisingly inattentive to such cultural political (national) dimensions in this international food policy making.

I also considered that logical weaknesses and political ramifications of both the FAO official effort to revisit and the responsive, civil-society critique to privilege alternative models and lessons. Spotlighting uneven progress against hunger, some SCN colleagues wanted to celebrate socialist successes as contrasted with neo-liberal economic failures. More nuanced anthropological research findings showing horizontal and vertical inequalities within Chinese and Vietnamese societies, therefore, had to be carefully worded, or such qualifications tended to disappear during the document editing process.

SPN, ultimately, wanted FAO to access and be guided by more voices of the hungry, but working at the global level, they, like FAO, homogenize local people’s diverse concepts of food security, insecurity, thresholds and criteria for identifying emergency food needs. Anthropological research and practice regarding local concepts of hunger vulnerability and response are probably too fine-grained for global advocacy purposes, although the SPN, which included journalist-academics were certainly interested and savvy in communications strategies and pinpointed what types of information might attract global media attention, and bring pressure on FAO to respond to their critique.

Discussion and Conclusions

The SPN advocates proved effective in several respects, which carry additional lessons and implications for anthropologist researchers and advocates. First and most important, it demonstrated a key role for advocates is to strengthen their own networks, but also the resolve of like-minded individuals in official positions.

As a related point, advocates can clarify the evidence base, logical reasoning, and talking points, and thereby strengthen the positions of fellow advocates and those with whom they dialogue. In this process, critical writings on history of science, technology, and policy can be very important, in helping all see the trends that they otherwise might have ignored. Who supported PoU over wider measures of hunger, and were they representing countries where such arguments have a storied history? What other national representatives or delegates favored narrower or wider under-nutrition concepts, and why?

In the quest to open up the dialogue to civil-society voices, who should be included? In this case, FML circulated her initial requests for participation to a small group of individuals who represented a spectrum of scholar-activist activities and political positions. Our conversations and posting represented ourselves, but the question of who represents or speaks for the hungry is still open. FAO has introduced a new “Voices of the hungry” dimension that uses food insecurity questions to identify immediate hunger situations. These findings will complement and diversify its measures. But what are additional channels for effectively introducing voices of the hungry?

In view of such dialogues between SPN and FAO’s technical experts, we do not know if our additional voices actually helped shape SOFI 2013 framings or policy changes. But in October 2013 the world heard talking points very similar to SPN’s coming from FAO’s official, although SCN individuals still encountered varying language in dialogues between representatives of civil society and UN agencies in Rome, Geneva, and New York City.

More skeptically, one must ask whether all these debates surrounding “framing hunger” actually make a difference? Do NGOs, UN agencies, or governments do anything different based on lower or higher standards and numbers? As Oxfam policy researcher Marc J. Cohen cogently observed: numbers do matter, but “Will FAO’s members—that is, the world’s nation states, and especially the rich ones—invest the resources necessary to create precise hunger numbers? And once we have those numbers on hand, will governments do the right thing with them and put eliminating hunger high on the policy agenda?” Even with 26 “food insecurity” editors and the prospective “voices of the hungry,” will governments trace how hunger cascades from food shortage, to lack of household access to food, to individual malnutrition, or raise hunger concerns on the policy agenda? United Nations Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter’s, framework for monitoring legal, outcome, and impact measures of food policy are important steps for increasing government accountability for reducing hunger, but such “human right to food” and “rights-based” policy approaches will need to be funded and reconciled with FAO’s, and the cross-agency UN Committee on Food Security directions and metrics.

Ellen Messer is a free-lance anthropologist and scholar-activist specializing in food, security, religion, and human rights, with faculty appointments at Tufts, Brandeis, and Boston University. Her current projects explore the history of the ethnography of hunger, and the political-culture of institution-building to end hunger in the US.


This entry was posted in December, Featured Posts, In Focus and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Comments on are limited to current AAA members as Anthropology News is supported by AAA member dues. There is a delay between submitting a comment and it posting while a person’s member status is confirmed.

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

© 2014 American Anthropological Association • 2300 Clarendon Blvd., Suite 1301 • Arlington, VA • 22201 • TEL (703) 528-1902 • FAX (703) 528-3546

%d bloggers like this: