Expert Commentary

Global food crises, food insecurity and measuring hunger

2013 study in The World Bank Economic Review on key lessons learned from the 2008 food crisis and the widely divergent regional outcomes and effects.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has estimated that from 2010 to 2012, nearly 870 million people in the world lacked sufficient food — more than 12% at the time. Within individual countries, rates can be significantly higher, particularly during food crises, and the consequences can be significant: During the 2008 global food crisis, the price of tortillas doubled in Mexico and that of rice in Southeast Asia nearly tripled. Elevated food prices are even thought to have played a role in the 2011 Arab Spring protests.

The process of arriving at precise estimates of world hunger — which can meaningfully affect policy decisions and levels of public attention — turns out to be more complex than previously thought. Gallup World Poll data shows that overall levels of food security actually improved in 2008, largely due to gains in more populous countries (India, Brazil and China). The FAO had to revise down its initial estimates that 1 billion people went hungry during the 2008 food crisis; over 2007-2009, the more accurate count was 867 billion. So what dynamics can affect how we see world hunger problems, and how might aggregate numbers hide important trends among the poor?

A 2013 study, “The Impact of the Global Food Crisis on Self-Assessed Food Security,” from the International Food Policy Research Institute, provides one answer to this question by undertaking a more thorough examination of the 2008 spike in food prices. The analysis of the crisis, published in The World Bank Economic Review, offers key lessons about the precise relationship between worldwide food availability and ground-level conditions in various regions.

The study’s findings include:

  • The 2008 global food crisis was highly country specific: Some countries reported almost no food insecurity and others report that as many as 80% of households had trouble affording food.
  • From 2007 to 2008, the countries that experienced the greatest increase in food insecurity were Tanzania (23 points), Turkey (21 points), Burkina Faso (14 points), Uganda (14 points), Mozambique (12 points), Kenya (11 points) and Ecuador (10 points). The average rate of inflation in food for these countries was approximately 4 points higher than other countries.
  • Food insecurity was highest in sub-Saharan Africa: 58.3% of households reported that they did not have enough money to buy the food they needed; that region was followed by South America (36%) and South Asia (31%). In OECD countries, the food insecurity rate was 8.3%.
  • In the eight most populous developing countries (excluding China, which the report author left out due to unusually high improvements in food security), food security decreased by 4.7% between 2005-2006 and 2008. These countries include India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mexico and Vietnam.

Why do larger countries have greater food security? The report’s author offers two hypotheses. First, more populous countries tend to impose restrictions on food exports in addition to setting aside significant food reserves. For example, in 2007 and 2008, China, India and Indonesia all put limitations on grain exports. Second, strong economic growth provides another possible explanation for favorable trends in these countries.

Yet the way food security is measured is far from ideal, the author writes, as current models are subjective and prone to wide variance in implementation. The study suggests new models for understanding food security: “Predictions of higher food prices and continued price volatility in the next decade or beyond would seem to justify greater investment and experimentation in food security measurement in the near future.” Along these lines, the FAO announced in March 2013 that it would work with Gallup to try to provide a more timely and targeted snapshot of world hunger and food crises.

Related research: A 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Research on Children, “Individual, Family, and Neighborhood Characteristics and Children’s Food Insecurity,”examines important food issues within the United States. A 2010 Duke University study explores the intersection of welfare policy, gender and food insecurity. A 2012 study published in Urban Studies also looks at how food prices can affect nutritional choices by low-income households; that post also touches on the latest research relating to “food deserts.”

Tags: poverty

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