Wednesday, September 21, 2011


(Reuters Alernet) - By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA - With food prices set to remain high over the next five years, the impact of the global food crisis on the world’s poor is an increasingly hotly debated issue. But estimates about the number of hungry people in the world are not accurate, experts say.

Derek Headey, research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), spoke to AlertNet’s Latin American correspondent, about the need for better ways to measure and monitor food insecurity - how much food people can afford, how much food is available, and what and how much people are eating.

Q: What are the problems in the way food insecurity is measured today?

A: It’s extremely hard to get reliable and real-time data. Food insecurity is poorly measured in most developing countries and it’s very hard to observe calorie availability and how much people are eating. There’s little coordination between national surveys and those carried out by U.N. bodies.

During the food crisis in 2008, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), borrowed data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), based on simulations and estimates based on very weak evidence.

Calorie intake is not a great measure of food insecurity. And yet all the talk is still around calories. The calorie fundamentalists I call them. We need more regular welfare surveys that go beyond calorie and income indicators to look at diets as a whole.

Poor people can react to crises in ways that are not always obvious beforehand.

During the 1998 Indonesian financial crisis, there was a very steep rise in rice prices. You’d expect people then to consume less rice but they didn’t. Rice was still the cheapest source of calories available. People instead cut back on dairy products, eggs and meat. So although calorie intake stayed roughly the same, anemia prevalence among Indonesian children rose. The prevalence of anemia can often better measure diet than calorie intake.

Q: What needs to be done to better measure food insecurity?

A: What you really want to do is measure dietary quality and dietary diversity more. It’s important to measure nutrition outcomes at the individual level, such as stunting in infants and anemia rates. We need indicators that capture both nutrition and calorie intake.

We need to scale up nutrition surveys, using the Gallup world poll, and include basic questions on food consumption. For example, asking households how many eggs they have eaten in the last two weeks.

Many people in poor countries get the vast majority of their calories from eating cereals. They eat very little diary products and vegetables. Many people are satisfying their calorie intake but their diets aren’t nutrient sufficient. In India, 50 percent of people have some kind of iron deficiency.

Q: Is there a global food crisis?

A: It’s anyone’s guess as to how severe the problem is. It’s a very complicated question.

High food prices and increased volatility is quite likely for the next four to five years. Food stocks are low and the world’s food system is vulnerable to any kind of shocks, as for example the panic caused by the drought in Russia showed.

In most countries, rising food prices are bad for the poor and no-one thinks food price volatility is good. But the real impact is less known.

In the Philippines, research has shown that agricultural wages have gone up, counter- balancing any rising food prices.

In South and East Asia, for the most part these countries have experienced economic growth, including income growth that has seemed to counter-balance any rising food prices.

Q: What do governments need to do to improve food security?

A: Governments need to put nutrition much higher on the policy agenda.

Scientific evidence shows nutrition is very important in terms of economic development. It impacts on school attendance and cognitive ability. In many developing countries, it’s still a hidden problem. Anemia, for example, is not observable.

There needs to be more investment in nutrition. For example community-based nutrition programmes in Honduras, Senegal and Thailand, have been able to pick up kids that have fallen behind and are not getting enough nutrients.

India is a really tragic case. It’s got half the world’s malnourished children while economic growth is around nine percent. Yet the last nutrition survey the government carried out was in 2005.

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