November 26, 2014

World rates of chronic undernourishment are down by 40 percent in the last 20 years.

By Edward Gresser

THE NUMBERS: Fastest reductions in chronic undernourishment, 1990/1992 to 2012/2014 *–

World -40%
Georgia -83%
Thailand -81%
Peru -73%
Myanmar -72%
Vietnam -72%
Nigeria -70%

* UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates. FAO defines “chronic undernourishment” as “a state, lasting for at least one year, of inability to acquire enough food, defined as a level of food intake insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements,” and defines hunger (though not famine) as “being synonymous with chronic undernourishment.”


From Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow, the single eyewitness account of the first Thanksgiving in 1621:

“We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.”

How many people are safely ‘farre from want’ this Thanksgiving?

1. One way to answer: “more than ever before.” The UN Food and Agricultural Organization has done five estimates of hunger rates and totals since the early 1990s, which cover the world as a whole and 115 individual countries. The first, covering the period 1990-1992, found 1 billion people chronically undernourished – 18.7 percent of the world’s people, or about 1.01 billion men, women, and children. Rates of hunger were above 30 percent of population in 33 of the survey’s 115 countries, and above half in 9. By the 2000-2002 survey these figures had dropped to 14.9 percent of world population and 930 million people; the most recent, for 2012-14, finds 805 million people or 11.3 percent of the world population hungry, and only one country, Haiti, with a rate of chronic undernourishment still above 50 percent.

Over a generation, then, hunger has been in steady retreat. By country, over the full 20 years of these surveys, Georgia and Thailand have both cut chronic undernourishment by over 80 percent; ten more countries have done nearly as well, with Angola, Armenia, Cameroon, Djibouti, Myanmar, Nigeria, Peru, Sao Tome, St. Vincent, and Vietnam all cutting undernourishment rates by more than 70 percent. By region, Southeast Asia’s decline has been fastest, down from 31 percent in 1990-1992 to 10.7 percent, with Latin America next at 60 percent. Nor has this progress slowed: about 9 million people have been escaping hunger annually in the short three years since FAO’s 2009-2011 survey.

2. A second answer: “far too few.” FAO’s report finds 805 million men, women, and children worldwide still chronically undernourished in 2012-2014 (76 million in South Asia, 227 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 64 million in Southeast Asia, 31 million in the Middle East, and 37 million in Latin America and the Caribbean) and believes that in 13 countries, more than 30 percent of people remain hungry. These are the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Ethiopia (though Ethiopia, focus of the 1989 “Live Aid” appeal, has cut chronic undernourishment from 75 percent of population in 1990 to 55 percent in 2000 and 35 percent in 2012-2014) Madagascar, Namibia, North Korea, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe along with Haiti.

Hunger remains a presence in the United States as well. The Department of Agriculture’s most recent Household Food Security in the United States, released September 2014, finds 5.6 percent of the country’s 121 million households suffering from “very low food security,” meaning that “the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources.” Pilgrim destination Massachusetts and North Dakota have America’s lowest rates of food insecurity, but even in these states, USDA estimates find about 3 percent of households with very low food security.

So a generation of remarkable progress, in which fear of hunger has vanished from many millions of lives. But on this 393rd Thanksgiving weekend, not all are far from want, and the fight against hunger is not yet won.


Worldwide –

FAO’s State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014: http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/2014/en/

The World Food Program USA seeks emergency help for aid to Syria, Iraq, Gaza, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and West Africa: http://wfpusa.org/hungerhotspots

Bread for the World’s 2015 Hunger Report examines women as food producers, the “feminization” of hunger and poverty, and rural female empowerment as part of the end of hunger: http://hungerreport.org/2015/

The Alliance to End Hunger: http://www.alliancetoendhunger.org/

Oxfam America on national policies, the role of small-scale farming, and more: http://policy-practice.oxfamamerica.org/work/food-agriculture-livelihoods/

At home –

USDA’s Household Food Security in the United States 2014: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err173.aspx

And Massachusetts then and now –

Edward Winslow describes Plymouth Colony fisheries, agriculture, and farm trade with the Wampanoag:

“… For fish and fowl, we have great abundance; fresh cod in the summer is but coarse meat with us; our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night, with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter; we have mussels and othus at our doors: oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet herbs: here are grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and red, being almost as good as a damson: abundance of roses, white, red, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed.”

Winslow’s “Mourt’s Relation,” 1621 (modernized spelling). The First Thanksgiving account is near the end of Part VI: http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/mourt1.html

The Greater Boston Food Bank, 2014: http://www.gbfb.org/our-mission/hunger.php

The Wampanoag today: http://www.mashpeewampanoagtribe.com/