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795 million people don’t have enough to eat — why that’s actually good news

In an annual report evaluating progress toward U.N. development goals, three U.N. agencies say the number of hungry people has decreased by 216 million in the past quarter century.

India, with its huge population, is making only slow progress on hunger despite its strong economic growth rate.

How many of the world’s people don’t have enough to eat? It’s a question so enduring that it often gets lost.

But the United Nations spends a lot of time thinking about it. A new estimate released last week puts the figure at 795 million — or about one of every nine people on Earth. To put it into perspective, that’s slightly fewer than the combined population of the United States and the European Union.

And that’s actually good news.

The number has fallen dramatically in recent years. In an annual report evaluating progress toward U.N. development goals, which you can read here, three U.N. agencies say the number of hungry people has decreased by 216 million in the past quarter century — a period in which the world’s population increased by almost 2 billion.  Most of that progress has been in the past decade. There are 167 million fewer hungry people in the world than there were 10 years ago.

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That’s not much of a consolation if you’re one of the hundreds of millions who still can’t get enough food to live an active and healthy life. That’s the agencies’ (the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Program) definition of hunger.

Mixed progress

Still, progress is progress. So what’s been happening?

It would take a long time to go through the entire report. It’s detailed, plus the language is bureaucratic and diplomatic to a fault. But here is a quick overview:

• Much of Asia has made rapid progress in recent years, particularly countries like China, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. China alone is responsible for much of the reduction in the number of hungry people in the world. But the majority of the hungry, nearly 500 million, still live in Asia.

India, with its huge population, is making only slow progress despite its strong economic growth rate. The list of countries that are treading water or going backwards won’t surprise you. At the top are Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.

Not all the news is grim, of course. Even as Pakistan battles the Taliban in its remote tribal areas, this report published in the last couple days shows that the country has been able to show progress on another front — battling polio.

Sub-Saharan Africa shows signs of progress, but overall still is struggling. The prevalence of hunger has dropped. Twenty-five years ago, one in three people was hungry. Today, it’s one in four. But during that period, the population has increased dramatically, from around 500 million to well over 900 million, so the number of hungry people actually has gone up.

It’s particularly grim in the central part of the continent, in places like Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Wars or civil conflict there prevent people from gaining any momentum, and instead often send them fleeing for their lives.

Anemia in women of child-bearing age, and stunted growth in children under 5 are particularly prevalent across the continent.

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The Food and Agriculture Organization says the world is actually producing enough food for the entire planet, and that global food prices aren’t really the problem, either. But that doesn’t mean everyone has equal access or equal resources to buy what he or she needs.

A generation ago, the world responded to acute crises in places like the Horn of Africa. Today’s needs are often in areas of chronic conflict — Afghanistan, for instance, but also Syria and Yemen. Think about how long Somalia has been torn by war. Or Sudan.

Climate change will only add to the pressure.


What to do about it? Here are a couple of the U.N.’s recommendations:

• Focus on the rural areas of the poorest countries, and find ways to make small farmers more productive.

• Encourage economic growth, but keep in mind that it won’t make much of a difference unless the poor have a chance to better their circumstances. That means finding ways to keep them from slipping deeper into poverty during hard times. In the U.N.’s terminology, that’s “social protection,” and two-thirds of the world’s poor lack it. But there is a big payoff once instituted.

Programs such as cash transfers, food vouchers, school meal programs and access to health insurance, it says, are closely tied with progress in reducing hunger.