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opinion | Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins

Rethinking hunger

We can’t end world hunger unless we measure it accurately

shutterstock/boston globe photo illustration

In anticipation of World Food Day Friday, we’re asking the question that has driven our work for more than 40 years: How can we end hunger on a planet that produces more than enough food, now nearly 2,900 calories a day, for every person on earth?

Even to know whether we’re making progress, however, requires that we have a realistic measure of hunger. Unfortunately, we don’t.

The world has long judged progress against hunger using one yearly estimate from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization based on calories alone: in 2015, about 800 million hungry people worldwide.

But focusing narrowly on calories is increasingly unhelpful. A doctor treating poor patients in southern India recently told us that his patients typically get enough calories, but 60 percent suffer from diabetes and heart conditions.

In recent decades, calories and nutrition have been parting ways. Uniform fields of rice and corn continue to replace more nutritious, diverse crops, and corporate-driven consumption of processed foods has intensified worldwide. From 1990 to 2010, unhealthy eating patterns outpaced dietary improvements in most parts of the world, including the poorer regions, and most of the key causes of noncommunicable diseases are now diet-related, reports a 2015 Lancet study.

We need a global measure of nutritional well-being that captures calorie and nutrient deficiencies. While one doesn’t exist, there are three indicators that together can help us grasp the breadth of what we call “nutritional deprivation.”


First is the FAO’s calorie-based hunger total. This year, many hunger-fighters have been celebrating that the percentage of hungry people in developing countries has dropped since 1990 by almost half. But populations are still growing; so, if we track progress not by percentage but by the actual number of people affected, the drop is 20 percent; and, excluding progress by China, it’s just 6 percent.

Moreover, this calorie indicator registers only severe, long-term deficiency. It misses an unknown number of people whose average annual calories are estimated to be minimally adequate but whose health can still suffer because for months — say, between harvests or jobs — they lack sufficient calories.


A second relevant measure is “stunting,” estimated by the World Health Organization in collaboration with UNICEF and the World Bank. In children under five, stunting is diagnosed when a child’s height is significantly below the median compared with the “reference population.” More than limiting height, stunting indicates a set of medical problems, often including a depressed immune system.

One-quarter of the world’s children are stunted due to many interacting factors, including too little food and nutritionally poor food for pregnant women and children, as well as contaminated water that interferes with nutrient absorption, and other deprivations. Because stunting commonly inflicts lifelong harm, its consequences affect not just one-quarter of children but one-quarter of our whole population, or 1.8 billion people.

Third, WHO estimates that two billion of us are deficient in at least one nutrient essential for health. Iron deficiency alone is linked to one in five maternal deaths.

These three global nutritional indicators suggest that at least one-quarter of the earth’s 7.3 billion people suffer from some form of “nutritional deprivation” — more than twice as many as are judged “hungry” by calorie deficiency alone.

Fortunately, awareness of the inadequacy of the current indicator is growing. The FAO, for example, has created a “suite of food security indicators” that includes stunting and many other factors such as grain-import dependency.

On the ground, movements of small farmers are reconnecting agriculture and nutrition. In two Southern India states, roughly two million small farmers are replacing chemically treated crops, many shifting to more nutritious, diverse cropping. At the national level, almost 30 countries now include the right to food in their constitutions. In Brazil, citizens have pressed not just for universal food security but also for nutrition security. Their efforts have produced policies helping to reduce stunting by 80 percent since the mid-’70s.


In such actions, citizens are tackling nutritional deprivation by democratizing economic and political power. A comprehensive measure of hunger can help awaken the public to join and support these solutions to realize the promise of food — healthy food — as a foundational human right.

Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins are authors of “World Hunger: 10 Myths,’’ which was released earlier this month