What’s a billion? For those concerned about the global scourge of hunger, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization set the world’s population of hungry people at 1.02 billion in 2009, that figure meant a lot.
The large, conveniently rounded number produced an outpouring of anguish and renewed determination to tackle the ongoing global food crisis head-on.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined other world officials in a one-day fast to highlight the plight of the hungry; celebrities, including Canada’s Celine Dion, flocked to mark World Food Day; and an FAO website, 1billionhungry.org, collected more than three million names on a digital petition urging governments to act.
Now, it turns out that the widely used one-billion figure was wrong. FAO statisticians, after re-crunching the numbers using better data and improved methodology, have downgraded their estimate of the world’s population of chronically undernourished to 870 million.
It’s still a terribly large number of people, but it’s not a billion.
Kostas Stamoulis, director of FAO’s agricultural development economics division, said Tuesday the organization had felt pressure in 2009 to come up with a new figure to illustrate the impact of the recent economic downturn and spike in food prices that produced riots in many countries.
Mark Fried, policy co-ordinator for Oxfam Canada, said G8 countries were no doubt eager for an assessment of the grim food situation. “Whether that translated into pressure, I don’t know, but it’s logical the FAO would want to come up with an accurate figure, and they did their best,” he said.
The G8 agreed to provide more than $20-billion over three years for “sustainable agriculture development” in hard-pressed countries.
Not only was the organization’s methodology flawed, the FAO did not expect governments and individuals to cope as well as they did with the twin crises. “It was a mistake, an error, that we have made, along with many other organizations,” FAO statistics director Pietro Gennari said.
According to Tuesday’s report, FAO calculations have been tweaked significantly to include more reliable sources of information, revised population data, estimates of food loss from production to tables, and something as seemingly basic as average height measurements.
The taller a person, the more calories he or she is expected to require. The FAO has determined that the average height in many countries is lower than they thought.
“That is the biggest change of all,” said Nisha Malhotra, a global poverty expert with the economics department of the University of B.C. “In countries where there were more hungry people, they figured out they were not as tall as they believed, so they were not as food insecure as they had estimated.”
But she said there has been no real change in the extent of poverty in the world. “How it’s been calculated has changed, the statistics look better, but there’s nothing to celebrate.”
Ms. Malhotra acknowledged, however, that many have reacted to the downgrade as a sign of good news, since the one-billion figure is history.
“One billion does sound more concerning than a lower figure, and when I look through what is happening, tweets and so on, people seem happy the numbers have gone down,” she said. “No one’s talking about the change in methodology.”
Mr. Fried pointed out that, while the extent of world hunger has been reduced since 1990, the downward trend has slowed significantly since 2007.