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HEALTH

Starved of data: India’s hungry people go missing from FAO report

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Starved of data: India’s hungry people go missing from FAO report

India has not shared its severe food insecurity data with FAO. Seen here, lunch at a school in Bodhgaya, Bihar, a file photograph.

India has not shared its severe food insecurity data with FAO. Seen here, lunch at a school in Bodhgaya, Bihar, a file photograph. | Photo Credit: MANISH BHANDARI/AP

FAO’s latest report found world hunger rising. However, India’s data on food insecurity is missing.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2022” report begins with a dismal piece of data: the number of people unable to afford a healthy diet has increased by 112 million to touch 3.2 billion, a reflection of rising food prices during the pandemic.

The report, a joint effort with UNICEF, WHO, WFP, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, provides an assessment of the prevalence of undernourishment, which is used to measure hunger, and the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity (PMSFI) based on the food insecurity experience scale (FIES), a widely accepted index.

“The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2022” report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
“The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2022” report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

But here is the thing: The FAO report has PMFSI data for many countries, but not India. India has not allowed the publication of this data, and the figures, specifically from 2014 to 2021, are absent from the tables appended in the FAO annexure. The FAO report has data on undernourishment in India as well as India-specific data for stunting, wasting, child and adult obesity, and anaemia among women.

Food insecurity is a condition where people are uncertain about their ability to obtain food and therefore reduce the quantity and quality of food they eat. Countries that have shared data on food insecurity include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. “India does not give data for these categories [moderate or moderate to severe food insecurity],” said an economist who is familiar with the data compilation process in the country.

Even though India does not share the required data with FAO, a simple subtraction of the moderate to severe food insecurity figure for “South Asia excluding India” (200.7 million) from the total figure for South Asia (764.3 million) shows that an estimated 563.6 million people or 41 per cent in India suffered moderate to severe food insecurity in 2019-21. The corresponding India-specific figure for severe food insecurity is 307.7 million people, or 22.4 per cent. In 2018-20 it was 278.3 million people, or 20.3 per cent, of 324 million in all of South Asia.

In 2020, India accounted for 973.3 million out of the 1,331.5 million people who could not afford a healthy diet in South Asia. In entire Asia, 1,891.4 million people could not afford a healthy diet, and almost half that number was in India.

Global hunger

In 2021, global hunger rose as a consequence of the unequal economic recovery and unrecovered income losses. The focus of the report is, therefore, to repurpose policy support to lower the cost of healthy diets.  The report uses data collected based on the FIES to estimate access to adequate food, a practice that the FAO started in 2014. Its estimates for the 2022 report are based on data collected before 2020 and do not account for the full impact of the pandemic. Nearly 60 countries, covering more than one quarter of the world’s population, made available food security data collected by national institutions and based on the FIES or equivalent statistical scales. For the remaining countries, the Gallup poll was used.

People wait for free food outside an eatery in Ahmedabad in January 2021. In South Asia, 412.9 million people experienced severe food insecurity that year against the earlier 260.3 million.
People wait for free food outside an eatery in Ahmedabad in January 2021. In South Asia, 412.9 million people experienced severe food insecurity that year against the earlier 260.3 million. | Photo Credit: AP Photo / Ajit Solanki

New estimates for 2021 show that moderate food insecurity remained more or less the same as in 2020 but severe food insecurity increased. In South Asia, 412.9 million people experienced severe food insecurity that year against the earlier 260.3 million, and Asia as a whole accounted for more than half of the people in the world in that category.

The affordability of healthy diets is determined by factors such as cost of nutritious food, cost of such diets relative to the incomes of people, and cost of such foods relative to the cost of foods rich in fats, sugar and salt and which may be promoted heavily. The world was moving backwards in its efforts to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, say the UN bodies that were part of the initiative. The drivers of the present crisis—conflict, economic shocks and climate extremes—coupled with high cost of nutritious food will make it difficult for countries to meet their Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

The report looks at how governments are supporting the food and agriculture sector through policy interventions. A key recommendation to governments is about reducing the cost of nutritious foods by reallocating budgets, even though governments had limited resources due to the pandemic-induced economic disruption.

If the pandemic exposed the inequalities and frailties in the world food systems, the war in Ukraine worsened prospects, interrupting supply chains and thus pushing up food prices. Yet it can be argued that within the same quantum of resources, governments can invest in agri-food systems equitably and sustainably. The report also flags the preoccupation with cereal production at the expense of pulses, seeds, fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods. Cereal production may lead to increased calorie intake but not necessarily to a balanced nutritious diet.

An aerial picture taken on July 21 of a wheat field near Mykolaiv, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If the pandemic exposed the inequalities and frailties in the world food systems, the war in Ukraine worsened prospects.
An aerial picture taken on July 21 of a wheat field near Mykolaiv, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If the pandemic exposed the inequalities and frailties in the world food systems, the war in Ukraine worsened prospects. | Photo Credit: Ionut Iordachescu / AFP

Undernourishment levels, according to the report, were stable from 2015 to 2019, and jumped from 8 in 2019 to 9.3 per cent in 2020 but rose at a slower pace in 2021. Around 8 per cent of the global population, around 630 million people it is estimated, will face hunger in 2030.

Undernourished South Asia

Of the 424.5 million undernourished people in Asia, South Asia accounted for 331.6 million, making it a sub-region with the highest number of undernourished people in the world. South Asia saw an upturn in undernourishment in 2019, a jump from 13.2 to 15.9 per cent between 2019 and 2020, and a further increase to 16.9 per cent in 2021. Smaller increases were observed in South-East Asia, where 6.3 per cent of the population faced hunger in 2021. More than half the world’s population affected by hunger were in Asia and more than one-third in Africa.

“In 2020, India had 973.3 million of the 1,331.5 million people who could not afford a healthy diet in South Asia.”

The pandemic worsened the situation for disadvantaged groups like women, youth, low-skilled workers and informal sector workers. World Bank projections showed that in 2021 the top 20 per cent of global income distribution had recovered half of the income lost in 2020, while the bottom 40 per cent of income distribution had not recovered their losses. For the first time in 20 years, global income inequality rose. Over 40 per cent of social protection measures were one-time payments by governments and nearly three-fourths lasted three months or less.

Needed: healthy diets

Policies were no longer delivering marginal returns in reducing hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms, says the report. While fiscal subsidies made staples available and accessible, the consumption of non-staples such as fruits and vegetables was discouraged mainly because of the lack of subsidy support. Their high costs also acted as a disincentive for low-income consumers. The affordability of healthy diets is a serious issue: Healthy diets had become unaffordable for at least 3.1 billion people in the world in a situation where food and agricultural policy support was mostly subject to market distortion and not aimed at provisioning healthy diets.

Hence, the target of zero hunger by 2030 will be difficult to achieve because social protection coverage has regressed the world over. At the global level, hunger affected 46 million more people in 2021: between 702 and 828 million people faced hunger, with Africa bearing the brunt of the burden. Twenty per cent of the people in Africa faced hunger as against 9.1 per cent in Asia, 8.6 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.8 per cent in Oceania and less than 2.5 per cent in North America and Europe.

A paddy field in Morigaon, Assam. The over dependence on cereals, which are energy-rich but deficient in nutrients, has impacted public health.
A paddy field in Morigaon, Assam. The over dependence on cereals, which are energy-rich but deficient in nutrients, has impacted public health. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

An inhibiting factor other than the pandemic, climate change and inequality within and between nations has been the undue focus on cereals. Agri-food systems need to go beyond cereals, the report argues, even though it admits that the war in Ukraine will affect supply chains of cereals, fertilizers, and energy globally. Ukraine and Russia are among world’s largest agriculture and staple cereal producers.

It is argued that agri-food policies of governments have promoted the production of low-cost energy-rich cereals which may not necessarily be healthy but may meet dietary requirements. The majority of the poor can now afford cereals but not other nutritious food. Rice, says the report, is a high emission-intensive commodity, calorie rich but nutrient deficient. Yet its production is globally supported and it is the staple  for 3 billion people the world over. In India, rice fortification is being taken up in a big way to address anaemia and micronutrient deficiencies despite food and nutrition experts pointing out the pitfalls of such an approach (“Against the grain”, Frontline, December 3, 2021).

“At the global level, hunger affected 46 million more people in 2021: between 702 and 828 million people faced hunger, with Africa bearing the brunt of the burden.”

The report also looks at the predominant policy supports to food and agriculture across the world, and how this support is actually pushing up the cost of nutritious food and promoting unhealthy diets. It provides guidance on what could be an alternative policy support, and the trade-offs that need to be managed to make agri-food systems more efficient, sustainable and equitable.

Given the importance of the FAO report in shaping strategies to solve hunger, India’s refusal to share vital data on food insecurity is hard to fathom.