FAO Says 925 Million Chronically Malnourished



The United Nations says there are now 925 million chronically undernourished people in the world.1 Last October the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) 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 about 16% of the population of “developing” countries. While this is a drop from the high water mark of just over a billion in 2009, at the height of the food and economic crises, it is higher than every other year since records started in 1969. It is also not the total number of malnourished people in the world. According to the United Nations “there is an additional 1 billion people suffering from serious malnutrition” who are not counted as “chronically malnourished”.2 When we look at the number of malnourished children we find slightly different statistics. UNICEF estimates that about 1/3 of the world’s children is growing up chronically malnourished,3 and that the same proportion of children under 5 years old in the “developing world” (195 million children) are stunted from hunger.4

The intensity of malnutrition of those who are considered chronically malnourished by the FAO is shocking. According to FAO statistics, the median daily calorie consumption of the chronically malnourished is roughly between 1,500 and 1,600kcal/person.5 To put this in perspective, the basal metabolism, the amount of energy the average person expands while completely inactive, in humans is approximately 1,500kcal/person/day.6 In other words, the average member of the 925 million people the FAO describes as chronically malnourished can only keep their metabolism working if they do nothing all day every day, which is obviously impossible.

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.7 According to the FAO “the planet could produce enough food to feed 12 billion people”, almost double the current world population.8 Yet, according to UN statistics approximately 36 million people die as a result of starvation every year.9 That means that starvation is a direct or indirect cause of 57 percent of all global deaths. It means 100,000 people dying every day, which is equivalent to 4,000 every hour or 1 person dying from starvation every second. It is the equivalent of the entire population of England being wiped out every year and a half; or of a Nazi Holocaust every 2 months; or of 33 9-11s every singly day of the year.

In addition, an expert on hunger estimated in the Lancet that “60 percent of deaths of children under 5 in the developing world are due to malnutrition and its interactive effects on preventable diseases”.10 That gives a figure of roughly 6.6 million malnutrition deaths in children under 5 every year as a result of malnutrition.

The Effects of Hunger


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.11 All movements become incredibly painful, due to decreased muscle mass, the growth of ulcers and peeling of the skin, diseases become more common due to decreased resistance, and the malnourished person succumbs to chronic fatigue as the body and mind both waste away. In addition, “undernutrition does serious long term damage, undermining health, education, and productivity… Those who survive are likely to suffer irreversible cognitive and physical damage.”12 According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) malnutrition is the single largest factor contributing to disease in the “developing” world.13 Researchers from Cornell University estimated that “malnourished children are up to 12 times more likely to die from easily preventable and treatable diseases than are well-nourished children.”14

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”. As a result of constant malnutrition “they have difficulty remembering or concentrating.” In the poorest states of the Northeast, such as Alagoas and Piaui these pygmies “comprise about 30 per cent of the population”.15

In many “third world” countries chronic hunger is taking a similar toll on the population. For example, a recent study by Policy Forum, a Tanzanian NGO, found that “only half the population consumes sufficient calories to sustain” their bodies for agricultural work, the primary occupation in Tanzania, and that “about 25% of the population consumes too few calories to sustain their body and carry out light office work.” In addition, the Policy Forum report found that “malnutrition is associated with 56% of child mortality in Tanzania and losses of up to 13% of intelligence” in children. The World Bank estimated in 2007 that malnourished children lose out on 2 years of education compared to adequately nourished children.16 And Action Aid estimates that the failure to reduce hunger in line with the MDG’s (see below) “is costing developing countries over $450 billion per year in lost GDP” due to losses in output.17

However, malnutrition is not always obvious to the casual observer. According to UNICEF, “three quarters of the children who die worldwide of causes related to malnutrition are what nutritionists describe as mildly to moderately malnourished and betray no outward signs of problems to a casual observer.”18


World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals


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. One of the Millennium Development Goals was to half the proportion of undernourished people in the world b?y 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. The proportion of undernourished people fell slightly between 2000 and 2005, rising between 2005 and 2009 to levels above those in 2000 and only falling back to 2005 levels this year. In the longer term, both the number and proportion of undernourished people fell between 1969 and 1995. However, the number of undernourished has increasing rapidly since 1995, while the proportion of undernourished has stagnated – but with fluctuation. And when China is excluded from the calculations the proportion of the population suffering from chronic malnutrition has actually increased since 1990.19 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 of high and increasing hunger following the terrible year of 2009. 


Regional Breakdown


In terms of regions, 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. In terms of countries, India has the most chronically undernourished people, with 238 million (a 46% increase since the World Food summit goals were adopted in 1996) and the Democratic Republic of Congo has the highest proportion of chronically undernourished people, at 69% (a proportion 2.7 times higher than in 1990). More than half the populations of Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Eritrea are chronically undernourished.




Rather than directly measuring the number of undernourished people, the FAO uses per capita dietary energy supply and estimated distribution of calories to estimate how many people are malnourished in a given country. In this estimation “a log normal distribution of caloric intake is assumed.” Thus the FAO models the distribution of total calories available to give an estimate of the total number of malnourished.20 

In effect, the FAO does not count the number of hungry but instead estimates it based on econometrics. As a result, the FAO projections are necessarily the best case scenario based on available indicators of dietary energy supply and distribution. As a result, factors such as waste, seasonal variations in malnutrition, short-term changes in factors such as food prices and income levels, and the complexities of distribution are not factored into the estimates. But the real situation rarely fits the best case scenario, and so the estimates are likely to be highly conservative. The FAO itself has admitted that


the calculation of the number of undernourished is based on the assumption that the distribution of dietary energy intake within a country or region remained unchanged between periods of “low” and “high” food prices. On the other hand, the household-level analysis shows that, as a result of higher food prices, the poor are proportionately worse off than the rich in the short run.21 


According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) “figures based on actual surveys of living conditions and on actual nutrition levels can be expected to be higher” than the figures derived from econometrics such as in the FAO’s estimates.22 For example, according to Action Aid “FAO calculations show that 16 percent of Nepal’s population was undernourished in 2006, but actual on-the-ground surveys using Nepal’s minimum food-intake standards show the rate to be closer to 41 percent.”23

The FAO’s calculations also do not take into account yearly variations in hunger, even though it is well known that hunger is often seasonal.24 In addition, hunger is estimated based on presumed calorie consumption, rather than on direct estimates (such as weight/height ratios), and “no account is taken of protein, vitamin or mineral intake”,25 with the result that only caloric malnutrition and not nutrient malnutrition is taken into account. The limitations of solely calorie-based measurements of malnutrition are well known. According to UNDESA, when calorie-based measurements were tested “the incidence of poverty obtained using a calorie-based poverty line was a small fraction of the prevalence of malnourishment as estimated from nutrition surveys”.26 This suggests further that the FAO figures are serious underestimations.

Another example of the possibility of underestimation is Tanzania. The FAO figures say that 34 percent of the population of Tanzania is undernourished. However, recall that the study by Policy Forum found that about half of all Tanzanians cannot sustain their bodies in agricultural labour because they are malnourished. 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.

Figures for numerous other countries show a significant disparity between the FAO’s estimates of hunger and other estimates. For example, the FAO figures show that 21% of the Indian population is chronically undernourished, whereas the Indian governments own statistics (based on direct surveys) show that almost 80% of the population consumes less than the minimum calorie requirement.27 Another example is Guatemala, where FAO figures also show that 21% of the population is chronically malnourished. However, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food noted after a visit to Guatemala that “spending on food in more than 60 per cent of Guatemalan homes did not meet minimum daily dietary requirements”.28

And all of this is only counting chronic malnutrition, not severe, moderate or mild malnutrition. The FAO defines chronic malnutrition as a daily consumption below a certain number of calories, usually around 1,800, which it estimates is the minimum energy intake a person requires to maintain weight.29 In effect, only the people so malnourished that they are wasting are counted as chronically malnourished. As noted earlier, the average chronically malnourished person consumes just enough calories to keep their metabolism working if they do nothing all day every day. However, many people consuming above 1,800kcal/person are severely malnourished, to the point that they are dying from hunger. The World Food Program recommends that “on average, the body needs more than 2,100 kilocalories per day per person to allow a normal, healthy life”,30 and further recommends 2,400kcal/person as a daily minimum.31 

In addition, none of these estimates take into account intensity of work, and the FAO’s cutoff point for chronic malnutrition of 1,800kcal/person is for light or sedentary labour. However, according to the FAO, the majority of the hungry are agricultural labourers engaged in heavy work.32 The Indian Council of Medical Research estimated that calorie requirements for heavy work are 3,000kcal/person for females and 3,900kcal/person for males.33 And the Tanzanian government estimates that a person engaging in heavy agricultural labour requires 3,500kcal/person, and that a person requires 2,600kcal/day just to properly carry out light office work.34

All of this indicates that the FAOs cutoff for chronic malnutrition, 1,800kcal/person, is far too low, and that it consequently severely underestimates the number of chronically malnourished. As an indication of how low this estimate is, the ration at Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp most notorious for starvation, was 1,750kcal/person, only just below the FAOs cutoff for chronic malnutrition.35

Thus there are 5 reasons to believe that the FAO’s estimates of the number of chronically malnourished are likely large underestimates: 1) The hungry are not counted directly but are estimated based on econometrics that ignore many variables and assume a best-case scenario; 2) Where countries have counted their hungry directly they have come up with estimates significantly larger than the FAO’s estimates; 3) The FAO only factors caloric malnutrition into its estimates and does not include nutrient malnutrition; 4) The FAO’s minimum calorie requirements are much lower than the WFP’s estimates of minimum calorie requirements and other evidence suggests that the requirements are too low; and 5) The FAO’s minimum calorie requirements do not take the intensity of labour into account, despite the fact that the majority of the chronically malnourished are engaged in heavy labour. 

As a result of this, billions of people are malnourished, with similar effects as those the FAO considers chronically malnourished, but don’t reach the FAO’s threshold of chronic malnutrition. As noted above, according to the United Nations “there is an additional 1 billion people suffering from serious malnutrition” who are not counted by the FAO as “chronically malnourished”.36 That means that about 2 billion people are suffering from serious or chronic caloric malnutrition. In addition, according to the UN World Food Program, more than 2.2 billion people suffer from serious micronutrient deficiencies,37 more than twice the number that the FAO recognises as chronically undernourished. That gives a minimum figure of over 2 billion people severely malnourished, possibly many more since it is unlikely that there is a perfect crossover between those suffering caloric and nutrient malnutrition. And this isn’t counting those suffering from moderate or mild malnutrition – surely an even greater number than those suffering from serious or chronic malnutrition, as indicated by UNICEF’s estimate that 3/4 of malnutrition deaths occur in people suffering moderate or mild malnutrition. This would suggest that at least half of the world’s population is malnourished.

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. In the words of Chief Justice of the Uttar Pradesh High Court, A.W. Ray, “where there is plenty of food, every child, woman and man dying from hunger is assassinated”.38

1 Where not cited, statistics are from Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 2010 The State of Food Insecurity in the World: Addressing Food Insecurity in Protracted Crisis, http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i1683e/i1683e.pdf 

2 United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council Thirteenth Session, A/HRC/RES/13/4, Agenda item 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council, 13/4: The right to food, 14 April 2010, http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G10/128/10/PDF/G1012810.pdf?OpenElement 

3 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), State of the World’s Children 2010, November 2009, measured as moderately and severely underweight rather than with the FAOs method of measuring calorie deficiency 


5 Calculated from FAO statistics that a deficit of 200-300 calories from their minimum is normal among the chronically malnourished

6 Statistic cited in Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, Verso 2002, p. 39

7 Cited in Tony Weis, The Global Food Economy: the Battle for the Future of Farming, Zed Books 2007, p. 11

8 Cited in UNGA, HRC 13th Session, A/HRC/RES/13/4

9 United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, 57th Session, Item 10: The Right to food, Report by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Mr. Jean Ziegler, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2000/10, 7 February 2001, http://graduateinstitute.ch/faculty/clapham/hrdoc/docs/foodrep2001.pdf; United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, The right to food: Commission on Human Rights resolution 2002/25, 22 April 2002

10 Cited in Science Daily, Moderate Malnutrition Kills Millions Of Children Needlessly, 1 July 2003, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/06/030630110813.htm

11 Nazaire St. Fort and Jeb Sprague, Anti-Hunger Protests Rock Haiti, Upside Down World 22 April 2008, http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1248/1/

12 Action Aid, Hunger Free Scorecard 2010, Who’s really fighting hunger?: Why the world is going backwards on the UN goal to halve hunger and what can be done, p. 13

13 Cited in World Bank, Why Invest in Nutrition?, http://www.sarpn.org.za/documents/d0001945/Nutrition-strategy_WorldBank_6.pdf 

14 Cited in Ibid

15 Isabel Vincent, Life a struggle for Pygmy family, Globe and Mail (Toronto), 17 December 1991

16 Policy Forum, Growth in Tanzania: Is It reducing Poverty?, http://www.policyforum-tz.org/files/GrowthTanzania.pdf, p. 5f. See further discussion of this report in The Citizen (Dar Es Salaam), Half Tanzanians are Claimed Underfed, http://allafrica.com/stories/200912211494.html

17 Action Aid, Who’s Really Fighting Hunger, p. 5

18 UNICEF, The State of the World’s Children 1998, Focus on Nutrition: The Silent Emergency, http://www.unicef.org/sowc98/silent.htm 

19 Action Aid, Who’s Fighting Hunger, p. 11

20 See FAO, Hunger: Frequently Asked Questions, http://www.fao.org/hunger/faqs-on-hunger/en 

21 FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008

22 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Rethinking Poverty: Report on the World Social Situation 2010, ST/ESA/324, p. 3

23 Action Aid, Hunger Free Scorecard 2010, Who’s really fighting hunger?: Why the world is going backwards on the UN goal to halve hunger and what can be done, p. 17

24 See for example Hunger Watch, Seasons of Hunger: Fighting Cycles of Quiet Starvation Among the World’s Rural Poor

25 FAO, Hunger: Frequently Asked Questions, http://www.fao.org/hunger/faqs-on-hunger/en/  

26 UNDESA, Rethinking Poverty, ST/ESA/324, p. 49

27 National Sample Survey Organisation: Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation Government of India, Nutritional Intake in India 2004-2005, NSS 61st Round, Report No. 513 (61/1.0/6), May 2007, p. 43. Based on the Indian government’s mandated 2,400kcal/day minimum and worked out from the table of calorie consumption figures given

28 United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council: Thirteenth session, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, Addendum: Mission to Guatemala, A/HRC/13/33/Add.4, 26 January 2010, p. 5

29 FAO, Hunger: Frequently Asked Questions

30 United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Hunger: What is Hunger?, http://www.wfp.org/hunger/what-is 

31 UN News Centre, UN expert decries 'assassination' by hunger of millions of children, 28 October 2005, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=16407&Cr=food&Cr1= 

32 FAO, Hunger: Frequently Asked Questions

33 Cited in Abhay Bang, Minimum Wages for Agricultural Labour: A Critique of Page Committee Recommendations, http://nirman.mkcl.org/Downloads/Articles/Minimum_Wages_for_Agricultural_Labour.pdf 

34 Cited in Policy Forum, Growth in Tanzania: Is It reducing Poverty?, p. 6

35 Statistic cited in Davis, op. cit., p. 39

36 UNGA, HRC 13th Session, A/HRC/RES/13/4

37 United Nations World Food Program (WFP), World Hunger Series 2009: Hunger and Markets, Leaflet, http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/communications/wfp200131.pdf 

38 Cited in United Nations Economic and Social Council, The right to food: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, Addendum: MISSION TO INDIA* ** (20 August-2 September 2005), E/CN.4/2006/44/Add.2 20 March 2006

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