The United Nations says there are now over 900 million chronically undernourished people in the world. The FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) has just released 2010’s report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World, in which they estimate that 925 million people are chronically undernourished – representing almost 16 percent of the population of “developing” countries. While this is a drop from the high water mark of just over a billion in 2009, when food prices were as high as commodity prices were low, it is higher than every other year since records started in 1969.
We are currently producing enough food to adequately feed everyone in the world – more than 1 and a half times what is needed to provide everyone with a nutritious diet according to the UN World Food Program. Yet, according to UN statistics approximately 36 million people die as a result of starvation every year. That means that starvation accounts for 57 percent of all global deaths. It’s like having a Nazi Holocaust every 2 months. It means 100,000 people dying every day, which is equivalent to 4,000 every hour or 1 person dying from starvation every second.
The effects of hunger are truly horrible. When a person doesn’t consume enough nutrients to keep their body’s vital systems working their stomach acid begins to break down their muscle and tissue in order to provide nutrients to the body. This pain is so unbearable that it is commonly described in Haiti, where 57 percent of the population is undernourished, as feeling like ones stomach is being eaten away by battery acid. All movements become incredibly painful, due to decreased muscle mass, diseases become more common and the malnourished person succumbs to chronic fatigue as the body and mind both waste away.
The horrible effects that malnutrition has on people can be seen from the fate of people in the Nordeste of Brazil. Here, according to Brazilian medical experts, generations of hunger “is producing a population of Brazilian Pygmies” whose “height at adulthood is far less than the average height recording by the World Health Organization and their brain capacity is 40 per cent less than average”. In the poorest states of the Northeast, such as Alagoas and Piaui these pygmies “comprise about 30 per cent of the population”.
In 1996 the World Food Summit Goals were adopted and the Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000. The World Food Summit Goal was to half the number of undernourished people by 2015. The first Millennium Development Goal was to half the proportion of undernourished people in the world by 2015.
With only 5 years left on both of these goals, we are unlikely to achieve either of them. The number of undernourished people has actually increased by approximately 150 million people since 1996 and the proportion of undernourished people has only decreased by about 10% since 2000, after rising between 2005 and 2009 to levels above those in 2000 and only falling back to 2005 levels this year. The number of people chronically undernourished in the world increased consistently from 1995 to 2009, rising by about 150 million between 2006 and 2009 alone, and the proportion of hungry people in the “developing world” rose consistently between 2005 and 2009. The drop over the last year, which still leaves the number of hungry people in the world higher than 2008 (and every other year on record), and the proportion of hungry people the same as in 2005, was primarily a return to the status quo following the high food prices and low commodity prices of 2009.
Two thirds of chronically undernourished people “live in just seven countries (Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan) and over 40 percent live in China and India alone.” Asia and the Pacific has the most chronically undernourished people, with 578 million, while sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of chronically undernourished people, at 30 percent. The Democratic Republic of Congo has had the worst increase in hunger, with an increase in number by a factor of 4.2 and an increase in proportion by a factor of 2.7. The DRC is also the hungriest country in the world, with 69 percent of its population chronically undernourished. Although often touted as a great success of the past 20 years, India has increased its number of undernourished people, from 172 to 238 million people, and its proportion of undernourished people, from 20 to 21 percent of the population.
The minimum daily energy requirement needed to avoid hunger “varies by country and from year to year” and is often a huge underestimation of the energy that people require to avoid undernourishment, as countries try to give lower figures for hunger in order to look good. As a result, the actual level of undernourishment is in most cases significantly higher than the figure given. For example, the FAO figures say that 34 percent of the population of Tanzania is undernourished. However, a recent study by Policy Forum, a Tanzanian NGO, found that about half of all Tanzanians “cannot perform their [daily] responsibilities well because they are undernourished”. In other words more than 6 million Tanzanians, 16 percent of the population, who are so hungry they cannot perform their daily activities are not considered undernourished.
That the figures are underestimated is also suggested by the fact that approximately 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 PPP a day and that about 3.14 billion people live on less than $2.50 PPP a day. PPP stands for adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity, which means that the amount of purchasing power their income has is equivalent to the purchasing power of having the income given at US prices. So $1.25 PPP means that that the person has enough purchasing power to buy $1.25 worth of stuff in the United States. $1.25 is about 78p and $2.50 is about £1.57, and if you try to imagine living on either 78p or £1.57 a day then you can see how much of an underestimation the FAO figures of hunger must be. An indication of the actual levels of hunger is that over 2 billion people regularly suffer from micro-nutrient deficiencies.
One thing, however, is clear. When we produce enough to feed 1 and a half times our current population the existence of even a single hungry person is disgraceful. When 925 million people are chronically malnourished by conservative estimates, when 36 million people die of starvation every year, and when the number of malnourished people has increased rapidly over the last 15 years then we are witnessing a crime against humanity of epic proportions.