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Can hunger really be falling around the world? Unfortunately, the stats say no

According to a 2017 WHO report, “After a prolonged decline, the most recent estimates indicate that global hunger increased in 2016 and now affects 815 million people.”

In 2017, the year’s supply of global resources was used up on Aug. 2, or day number 214, which was 4.5 days earlier than the previous year.
REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Because I so admire Nick Kristof’s journalism of social justice, particularly his attention to the world’s poor, I couldn’t resist clicking on his Sunday headline: “Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History.”

And, well, what a letdown.

Addressing readers who watch, “hands over mouths in horror,” the theater of Trumpism, the rising risk of nuclear war with North Korea, the atrocities in Yemen, Syria and Myanmar, Kristof urges a balancing attention to positive developments, including these:

A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell.

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Really? I don’t follow the stats on literacy and child mortality that closely, but I felt certain that the trend lines on world hunger and poverty had been going in the other direction.  (In part this is because I’d missed Kristof’s column from last January, predicting that 2017 — and, probably, every year that follows — would be the best in human history, for the same reasons). Reading a little further, I found supporting references:

Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.

Well, those truly are encouraging statistics — even if a decline in the number of people in poverty is not quite the same as a decrease in their share of the whole population — and I had no reason to doubt either Roser’s data or Kristof’s citations. Gains on clean drinking water have been widely reported in the last few years, and though I don’t quite see electrification as being comparably essential, it surely matters.

However, the World Bank’s monetized standard of “extreme poverty” has been criticized as too simplistic a line to draw across the globe’s socioeconomic diversity. Surely there were other, possibly better measures of hunger and impoverishment?

There were, and it turned out I’d already squirreled some away in a report that came out last September. Prepared by the World Health Organization, it was called “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2017,” and included these key findings, which I’ve lightly compressed:

After a prolonged decline, the most recent estimates indicate that global hunger increased in 2016 and now affects 815 million people. Moreover, although still well below levels of a decade ago, the percentage of the global population estimated to be suffering from hunger also increased in 2016.

In parts of the world, this recent surge in hunger reached an extreme level, with a famine declared in areas of South Sudan in early 2017 and alerts of high risk of famine issued for three other contexts (northeast Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen).

In 2016, the food security situation deteriorated sharply in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, South-Eastern Asia and Western Asia. This was most notable in situations of conflict.  However, worsening food security conditions have also been observed in more peaceful settings, especially where economic slowdown has drained foreign-exchange and fiscal revenues.

The rising trend in undernourishment has not yet been reflected in rates of child stunting, which continue to fall. Nonetheless, the world is still home to 155 million stunted children. Wasting also continues to threaten the lives of almost 52 million children (8 percent of children under five years of age), while childhood overweight and obesity rates are on the rise in most regions and in all regions for adults — all of which highlights the multiple burden of malnutrition as a cause for serious concern.

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The problem of sustainability

Even if Kristof’s conclusions on hunger squared up a little better with the latest WHO data, there would still be a problem with presenting them as slam-dunk rejoinders to global gloom — and it’s a tricky one to state without seeming heartless. So please trust me when I say: I am completely in favor of all the world’s children being free of hunger, poverty and preventable disease. (Grownups too.)

But one would also want those happy conditions to endure — that is, to be sustainable. And plentiful evidence suggests that, given the current combination of global population growth and rising living standards, today’s declines are likely to outlast the gains.

Though the rate of population growth has slowed in recent decades, the raw numbers continue to swell impressively; the latest U.N. forecasts I find suggest that the global total will climb from 7.6 billion people last June to 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by century’s end.

(This is not just a problem driven by growth in Africa and Asia, by the way. The United States will be among the top nine contributors to the swelling tally through mid-century, behind India, Nigeria, Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Tanzania, and ahead of Uganda and Indonesia.)

The environmental impact of our species is often calculated conceptually as I=PAT, with Impact being the product of Population times Affluence times Technology (that is, industrialization).

The equation is useless for calculating actual metrics because the P, A and T factors resist reduction to numerical values. But it does show clearly why rising living standards worldwide, though perhaps a blessing in the short run as suffering declines, will become a curse once resource overconsumption drives them back down and misery returns.

Although the news is never encouraging, I always like to check the data at the Global Footprint Network to see how we’re going on resource depletion. Each year, the project team issues two key measures of overconsumption:

  • The “overshoot” date on which a year’s supply of global resources will have been consumed, and
  • How many Earth equivalents in resources we’ll have gone through by year’s end.

Back in the 1960s, there was no such thing as overshoot; consumption remained more or less sustainable, and a year’s worth of resources got used up right around Dec. 31. In 2017, the supply was used up on Aug. 2, or day number 214, which was 4.5 days earlier than the previous year.

And by last Dec. 31, the footprint analysis concluded, we’d used up the resources of 1.7 Earths.

Not just about mouths to feed

Population size is still usually assumed to be the main factor driving up consumption, but a U.N. analysis in 2016 concluded that our numbers alone were no longer as important a factor as rising living standards and a major decline in manufacturing efficiency.

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So even if the present-day fortunes of the world’s children were closer to the picture Nick Kristof offers, it would be a fair question to ask how long their happy situation could possibly continue. Also, what would have to change for them to be able to pass their advantages along to their children and grandchildren.

The answer to that couldn’t be simpler, if not at all easy: We need to restore the balance between resource consumption and resource renewal.

If Earth Overshoot Day’s annual advance could be reliably stalled somehow, and then even slightly reversed — well, then we might justifiably claim to have witnessed the best year in human history.