Stomping Out Starvation- Plummeting Hunger Rates Explained

Stomping Out Starvation- Plummeting Hunger Rates Explained

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons By Varoon Pazhyanur

Hunger is one of the most pressing issues that humanity has dealt with throughout history. And yet, for the first time, information from the 2013 Global Burden of Disease Report of the Lancet indicated that, “the health burden from high body mass indexes now exceeds that due to hunger.” Contrary to popular belief, food is more abundant on Earth than at any other time in history. The global production of cereal grain could feed more than 10 billion people. This major shift in global health and development should not belittle the continued prevalence of undernutrition in the world. 795 million people, one in nine, suffer from hunger today. Because distribution, rather than total production of food, impedes the eradication of hunger more than all else, the international community has a unique opportunity for the first time in history to witness a completely well-fed world. Continued efforts of reducing income inequality and improving farming practices worldwide provide the best path towards a world in which no one is hungry.

The global community’s collaboration has already played a major role in transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of people. As part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) of 2000, the United Nations sought to “halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.” The international community placed special attention on the developing world, as 98% of all hungry people currently reside in developing regions. In 1990, hunger afflicted 23.3% of those in the developing world. According to the 2015 UN Millennium Development Goals Report Card, by today that proportion has dropped to 12.9%. If current progress continues for the rest of the year, that number will drop to 12.2%, “just shy of the goal.” Moreover, the absolute number of hungry people in the world plummeted by 200 million since 1990. While celebration is warranted, global institutions should also analyze why this progress was possible to ensure that it can be continued as the UN crafts the successor to the MDGs. To understand the causes of this decline, it makes sense to focus on South and East Asia as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, as those regions witnessed the most and least progress, respectively, towards halving the hungry population.

Official UN estimates show the rapid decline in hunger rates over the past 20 years, almost meeting the goal set forth in 2000.  (

Data from the UN Food And Agriculture Organization State of Food Insecurity in the World report from this year shows that Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa diverged more than any other set of regions with respect to hunger prevalence and rates (

While it makes sense to attribute this decline to food aid from the World Food Programme, US Agency for International Development (USAID), and other organizations, the reality is more nuanced. If such aid were the deciding factor, one would expect more aid to directly correlate to less hunger around the world. Yet while hunger rates continued to drop throughout the 21st century, the volumes of food aid also fell. Rather, global trends outside the purview of the World Food Programme better explain the shift in global hunger rates.

One such trend is the global increase in wealth. Despite shocks such as the 2008 financial recession, the world is generally becoming more prosperous, allowing people to purchase more food and improve farming practices. One common measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient. This scale between 1 and 100, where 1 represents a perfectly equal distribution of wealth while 100 represents a scenario in which one person controls all wealth, provides a widely used index to judge how unequal each country, and the world, is. A report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics noted that the Gini coefficient stood at 69 in 2003, dropped to 65 in 2013, and will decline to 61 by 2035. Branko Milanovic of the World Bank noted that the globe is in the midst of “the first decline in global inequality between world citizens since the Industrial Revolution.” Increasingly equitable global wealth partly explains the rising number of people with access to food in global markets. Consider that in 1960, the US was 4.1 times richer than the average country. By 2010, that gap had shrunk to 3.9. That is not to say that progress was achieved evenly and ubiquitously.  As Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs noted in his book, The End of Poverty, the number of extremely poor people (defined as those living on less than $1 of income per day) in Sub-Saharan Africa rose since 1981, yet fell most dramatically in South and East Asia. This coincides with the fact that Sub-Saharan Africa was the only region on Earth in which the absolute number of hungry people rose. The UN estimated that in 1990 the region had 27 million hungry people, but 32 million in 2012. The strong, reciprocal link between hunger and poverty creates a powerful case for expanding access to credit, supporting mobile banking enterprises, and lowering trade barriers.

The other trend that largely explains the declining prevalence of hunger is improving farming practices, especially with respect to genetically modified crops and irrigation. Consider that when comparing Sub-Saharan Africa with South and East Asia, the regions with the least and most respective progress in reducing hunger, the latter increased its agricultural output substantially more than the former. Differing respective population growth rates compound this effect.

Yield of cereal grain (on y-axis in kg/hectare) rose the least in Sub-Saharan Africa, and more abruptly in South Asia when compared to the rest of the world (

Commercialized genetically modified (GM) crops are engineered to produce their own insecticides or allow for more liberal use of herbicides. In the face of pests and weeds, GM crops outperform conventional counterparts. A meta-analysis by Wilhelm Klümper and Matin Qaim of the University of Goettingen concluded that the use of GM crops over conventional ones “reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.” South and East Asia, namely India and China, adopted GM technology to a much larger extent than did Sub-Saharan Africa. Only four African nations fully had commercialized GM crops as of 2013 and much of the continent deprives itself of this yield-boosting technology. The extra yield, namely for rice, coupled with the extra profits, allowed South and Esst Asia to reduce its hunger rates dramatically.

In the future, more effort should be placed in expanding the use of GM crops, but this is only possible through a major upheaval in dozens of nations simultaneously. A more reasonable focus in the post-2015 agenda deals with disparities in irrigation. Only 7% of Sub-Saharan farmland is irrigated, as compared with 40% in South Asia. Expanding access to irrigation or genetically modified crops is an important solution, but won’t mitigate every root cause of hunger. Lack of access to credit and banking, among other root issues, has exacerbated the hunger crisis. The international community has an obligation and the power to continue the progress made so that one day, no one has to go hungry.

The two regions in focus differ greatly in their uses of GM crops. (


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