Food Security Measurements

FAO Develops New Way to Measure Food Insecurity

by Stormy Campbell

Editor’s note: The article below was written in 2013, the year these measures were put into place. The measures showed that more progress had been made by 2011 than the anti-hunger world had supposed. Although the recession of 2008 significantly set back progress, the world was slowly but steadily regaining ground until the coronavirus pandemic. According to the FAO, the number of food-insecure people—that is, people who are forced to compromise on food quantity or quality—increased to 2.38 billion in 2020. The number of hungry people—that is, those who go for days without food—had decreased to 650 million, but went back up to 768 million in 2020. More recently, the World Food Programme warned that the war in Ukraine has unleashed a new and very severe global food crisis.

In 2013, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations revamped the tools and instruments used to measure worldwide food insecurity. The FAO, with these new measurements, was able to provide more accurate data concerning food insecurity dating back to 1990. The new data reveal that hunger reduction has improved significantly more than the anti-hunger world previously thought.

With these new results, the data show that a significant amount of progress in reducing food insecurity around the world happened between 1990 and 2008, though it has slowed since that year.

The new figures make it possible to reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving undernourishment in the developing world by 2015—as long as steps are taken to combat the recent decline in hunger-reduction progress.

The change in results can be attributed to new data instruments used by the FAO, including the latest world population data, new demographic data, revised minimum dietary energy requirements for each country, and specific food-loss data. A major change affecting undernourishment data was the presence of sufficient-food-supply data to compare to the annual dietary energy availability for each country.

Survey data on food consumption were revised to better assess the inequality of food access in several countries. The new methodology also incorporates food loss at the retail level into food-insecurity estimates.

This has recently shown to have an impact on hunger estimates. The estimate for 2008 has now been raised by 117 million, due to data about food loss for the year.

Another major change is in the use of new population estimates and records going back to 1990. While the FAO global data was not heavily affected by the new information, certain undernourishment and food-insecurity statistics for particular countries were significantly affected.

In many countries, such as China, the food-availability estimate remained the same as the population increased, originally leading to a higher estimate of food insecurity. However, in some countries, the new data proved that food security and availability was greater than previously expected when population numbers dropped. An example of this would be Bangladesh, where the total population estimate for the 1990s decreased by 17 million people.

Along with the prevalence-of-undernourishment indicator used to measure food-insecurity situations, the FAO uses more than 20 other indicators—such as measurements of dietary energy supply and food prices, in order to give those working in specific countries a better understanding of causes and issues that particular country may face. The FAO also added new indicators this year, along with the new prevalence-of-undernourishment measurement.

While measurement systems have undergone major revisions, the FAO plans to continue revising data as more accurate information arises, and to closely examine the accurateness of the methodology. The FAO is currently planning an initiative to create an “experience-based” food-security indicator for a select number of countries.

This new indicator will be available annually and is based on global polls that monitor undernourishment by means of short interviews. The hope is that this indicator will make the monitoring of food situations more timely, and, in that way, give food-aid groups the most current information for a particular country.

The new data puts the number of food-insecure people in the world at 870 million for 2011, down from 925 million, as shown in the 2010 measurement. While the new measurements have improved the accuracy of food-insecurity data overall, the FAO would still like to continue to improve data collection.

During a recent symposium, the FAO chose and announced three objectives for the next five years. Officials announced that they wish to advance the measurement of food security in large-scale surveys, develop a strong technical framework that works in various contexts, and strengthen the relationship between generating information and policy-making.

—Sources: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), World Food Programme. This article was printed in Hunger News & Hope, Vol 13 No 1, Winter 2013.