Last week, Oxfam launched its new international
to fight food insecurity. The advocacy organization's campaign materials
cite many of the statistics with which the post-food-crisis world has
become familiar. Most common is the estimate that more than one billion
people in the world are now hungry as a result of the combined impacts
of rising food prices and the global economic recession. The estimate
comes from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and few have
questioned the validity of the numbers.
Now two studies suggest the estimate may be inflated. In the May/June
special issue of Foreign Policy magazine on food, Abhijit
Bannerjee and Esther Duflo, from their perches at MIT's Poverty Lab
Project, have an article with the provocative subtitle, ''but what if
the experts are wrong?'' Meanwhile, IFPRI's Derek Headey, in a VoxEU
post, examines the prevailing FAO/World Bank methodologies for estimating
global hunger and suggests that these institutions are overestimating
hunger, mainly because they discount the positive impacts of economic
growth in some of the world's most populous countries.
On closer inspection, Bannerjee and Duflo deepen our understanding of
the nature of hunger in developing countries, but they offer little here
to call into question the billion-hungry estimate. Headey, on the other
hand, is onto something, but it's worth going deeper still to understand
the relationship between poverty, high food and agricultural prices, economic
growth, and government policy.
Bannerjee and Duflo, using their highly empirical Poverty Lab methodologies,
really aren't trying to answer the question of how many hungry people
there are on the planet. Rather, they make us look more closely at the
nature of hunger and poverty, pointing out that simple economic assumptions
about the poor's food-buying and food-consuming habits are fraught with
misconceptions. For example, they assert from their field experience that
the poor choose foods not only or even primarily based on cost and nutritional
value but based on how good they taste. This is a worthwhile read, but
this in no way answers FP's provocative title questioning the prevalence
Headey is more on-target with his critique of the global numbers. In his
summary, a post
on Dani Rodrik's blog, and in a longer
paper, he compares the common FAO/WB method for estimating hunger
using simulation analysis based on caloric intake with his own culling
of international Gallup polling data on self-reported hunger and food
insecurity. His results are striking, suggesting that from 2005/6 to 2007/8,
when agricultural prices skyrocketed, the number of hungry in the 70 countries
for which there was data declined by 408 million.
How could this be? I'm not going to summarize his full argument and data
here; he does a nice job of that on his VoxEU post. But he claims that
the Gallup data show that in the largest developing countries with the
largest number of poor and hungry, notably China and India, economic growth
more than made up for any negative impacts from rising food prices.
Headey calls for a re-examination of the methodologies for estimating
global hunger, and his data certainly justify that call. That said, China
has been the dragon in the room for a lot of statistical anomalies in
recent years, with its fast growth, declining poverty, and large population
swamping generalizations about progress in ''the developing world.'' Headey
notes that China accounts for two-thirds of the decline in self-reported
food insecurity, and a closer look at his data suggests that a large portion
of developing countries experienced an increase in hunger in that same
period. So for those who might take this data as a reason to do less about
global food insecurity: not so fast!
There are other important unanswered questions in
- The period he studied did not fully account for the impact of the
economic downturn on the global economy. As such, he was measuring the
impact of food price inflation, not its toxic combination with slow
or negative economic growth. That's what the poor have faced; to deal
with global hunger, that's what we need to understand.
- There were important policy reasons that high agricultural prices
did not have as big an impact in some parts of the world, notably China
and India. Both are relatively self-sufficient in their most basic foods,
and both maintained buffer stocks with which they could offset rising
international prices. So one would expect to see lower impacts of rising
food prices because, well, food prices didn't rise as much. How does
his analysis account for this?
- I've argued in an earlier
blog post that high agricultural prices can be good for development
and poverty/hunger in countries where a large share of the poor work
in agriculture. Countries such as China and India. So to what extent
is the decline in self-reported food insecurity reflecting the positive
economic-stimulus effects of higher prices– in farmer incomes and returns
to unskilled labor in and out of agriculture?
Headey starts an important discussion. Hopefully it takes place without
undercutting concern for global food insecurity and the worthy campaigns
to address it, such as Oxfam's.