The World is Eating Marginally Better

Some of the world – although not all – has made substantial progress in fighting hunger since 1990, although South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa continue to do badly on the Global Hunger Index, according to a new report by the International for Food Policy Research Institute.

However, East Asia, North Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Caribbean have made progress in bringing down hunger and improving health for their peoples. In particular, China and Vietnam have made the most progress in combating starvation, while North Korea once again has made the least. Its relative score on the hunger index has risen by 21 points, testament to the folly of the country’s disastrous economic and government policies.

The report, The Challenge of Hunger: Ensuring Sustainable Food Security under Land, Water, and Energy Stresses, was released yesterday in Washington, DC. It shows that even though South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are labeled as alarming, even they have made progress compared with their scores in 1990.

“Improvements in global hunger since 1990 continue to be small,” the report notes. “Although the number of undernourished people was on the rise from the mid-1990s until 2006–08, the proportion of undernourished people in the world declined during that period. Because the global hunger index measures the proportion of people who suffer from hunger—broadly defined by the three component indicators—the index shows a positive trend. The 2012 world GHI fell by 26 percent from the 1990 world GHI, from a score of 19.8 to 14.7. This progress was driven mainly by reductions in the proportion of children younger than the age of five who are underweight.”

The report also focuses particularly on how to ensure sustainable food security under conditions of land, water, and energy stress. The stark reality is that the world needs to produce more food with fewer resources, while eliminating wasteful practices and policies. Averages mask dramatic differences among regions and countries.

Indeed, the 2012 hunger index score for Sub-Saharan Africa was 16 percent lower, 26 percent lower in South Asia, and 35 percent lower in the Near East and North Africa. Progress in Southeast Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean was particularly remarkable, with scores decreasing by 46 percent and 44 percent respectively In Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the 2012 GHI score was 46 percent lower than the 1996 score.

Although between 1990 and 1996 South Asia reduced its index score by more than six points—mainly through a large decline in underweight children—the region, which includes India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, it has not maintained this rapid progress. Since 2001, despite strong economic growth, the region has lowered its index score by only two points. The proportion of undernourished people did not decline between 1995–97 and 2006–08 and even showed a temporary increase of about 2 percentage points around 2000–02.

“Social inequality and the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women are major causes of child under-nutrition in this region and have impeded improvements in the GHI score,” the IFPRI report notes.

Although Sub-Saharan Africa made less progress than South Asia in the 1990s, it has caught up since the turn of the millennium, and its 2012 GHI score has fallen below that of South Asia as countries formerly in conflict have become more politically stable and economic growth has begun resume on the continent.

“Since 2001, child mortality rates—both for infants and for children under the age of five—have declined in Sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to a range of factors.” That includes advances in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Also, increased use of insecticide treated bed nets and other anti-malaria treatment have cut into the prevalence of the disease, one of the world’s worst killers.

Other contributors may include higher immunization rates, better antenatal care, more births in medical centers, greater access to clean water and sanitation facilities, and increasing levels of income.

As the world’s population skews inexorably higher, natural resource scarcity, partly due to population growth but also higher incomes, unsustainable resource consumption, poor policies, and weak institutions— “ sustainable food security is now inextricably linked to developments in the land, water, and energy sectors.

Resource scarcity is already having an impact on food security.

The world’s best arable land is under cultivation, the report notes, and substandard agricultural practices have degraded significant amounts of farmland.

A growing number of resource-demanding countries, including China and South Korea, among others have been moving into land-abundant countries to grow food for their own populations.

At current levels of water productivity, “under a scenario of medium economic growth, water will not be sufficient to ensure sustainability and reduce risks to people, food systems, and economies. Rising energy prices are pushing up farmers’ production costs and making biofuels, which can compete with food, more profitable.

Finally, the report notes, agriculture is extremely vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. Over the next four decades, agricultural production will need to increase substantially to meet the demands of a growing and increasingly wealthy world population.