WG2 Misleads on Undernourishment Trend

Food security was one of the touchstone issues of the IPCC WG2 Summary for Policy Makers.

In its chapter on food security (Chapter 7), IPCC’s single statement on changes on undernourishment was that 75 million were added to the undernourishment rolls between 2003-5 and 2007:

FAO’s provisional estimates show that, in 2007, 75 million more people were added to the total number of undernourished relative to 2003–2005 (FAO, 2008); other studies report a lower number (Headey and Fan, 2010). More than enough food is currently produced per capita to feed the global population, yet about 870 million people remained hungry in 2012 (FAO et al., 2012).

However, yields have steadily increased for nearly all major crops and, according to the most recent FAO statistics, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013 published in September 2013, the number of undernourished [in developing countries] decreased by 17% between 1990-92 (995 million) and 2011-13 (827 million), as illustrated in their figure below. [The corresponding world decrease - see central points in 2013 online data is also 17% - from 1.015 billion in 1990-2 to 842 million in 2011-2013.]

fao 2013 undernourished
Figure 1. From FAO, The State of Food Insecurity 2013.

The FAO 2013 report does not directly show the difference between 2003-5 and 2007 undernourishment, but current online FAO data shows a decline in undernourishment of 44 million from 2003-5 (central point) to 2007, as opposed to the increase of 75 million reported by IPCC. [The online FAO data reconciles exactly to 2013 Annual Report Table 1 by comparing the central point in the three-year intervals to the annual figure in the online data.]

The glaring inconsistency between the most recent FAO numbers and the IPCC report raises some obvious questions.

Why the difference?

The IPCC’s reference “FAO (2008)” is “FAO, 2008: Policy Measures taken by Government to Reduce the Impact of Soaring Prices. Global Information and Early Warning System.” Googling the title returns only a 2008 webpage. I was unable to locate any support “75 million” in this reference.

In the same sentence, IPCC also cited “Headey and Fan, 2010″ (as supposed authority for the assertion that “other studies report a lower number”). Headey and Fan 2010 turns out to be a “policy-relevant monograph” from the International Food Policy Research Institute, a K Street (Washington) “intergovernmental organization” (see (here), entitled Reflections on the Global Food Crisis: How did it happen? How has it hurt? And how can we prevent the next one?. It contains the “75 million” figure, indicating that the IPCC obtained its figure of “75 million” from a somewhat dated “policy-relevant monograph”, rather than up-to-date FAO statistics:

In its 2008 state of food insecurity publication, FAO (2008) estimates that the number of chronically hungry people in 2007 increased by 75 million over its estimate of 848 million undernourished in 2003–05, with much of the increase attributed to high food prices…Rosen and Shapouri (2008) of the USDA estimate an increase of 133 million extra malnourished people in some 70 countries.

Ironically, Headey and Fan 2010 does not support the IPCC assertion for which it is cited as authority – that “other studies” show lower figures. The only other relevant study cited by Headey and Fan actually shows a higher increase (133 million).

Headey and Fan’s “FAO (2008)” reference links to the 2008 FAO report on World Food Insecurity, which indeed reported an increase of 75 million from 2003-5 to 2007. At that time, FAO numbers showed little change in undernourishment during the 1990s, but an increase around 2007, as shown in the following figure from the 2008 FAO report:

fao 2008 undernourished
Figure 2. From FAO The State of World Food Insecurity 2008

In 2011-12, the FAO carried out a thorough re-assessment of their procedures for estimating world undernourishment. According to their revised numbers in The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012, there was a substantial decline in undernourishment from 1990-2 to 2010-12 (similar to the 2013 numbers shown above.)

The updated figures emerging as a result of improvements in data and methodology indicate that the number of undernourished people in the world is estimated to have declined more steeply than previously estimated until 2007, although the rate of decline has slowed thereafter (Figure 1)
fao 2012 undernourished

The IPCC cited the 2012 FAO report on World Food Insecurity as authority for their figure of “870 million” (which occurs prominently in the report). This report showed a steady decline in undernourishment during recent temperature increases. So the authors of this section were aware of the up-to-date data.

Rather than using up-to-date FAO data showing a steady decline in undernourishment during a period of increasing temperatures (which they either were aware of or ought to have been aware of), the IPCC chose to feature an increase in an obsolete data set that had been previously highlighted in an “policy-relevant monograph” cited by IPCC. IPCC coyly described this earlier dataset as “provisional”.

Why didn’t IPCC clearly report the long-term decline in undernourishment during a period of temperature increase. This is information that is relevant to policy-makers. And, in particular, why did IPCC highlight a supposed increase in “provisional” data (more precisely now long obsolete data) when the increase changed to a decrease in the up-to-date version of the data?

It’s hard to think of a good reason.

Tom Curtis observes below that there is a slight difference between undernourishment in the developing world and undernourishment including the developed world. The difference in 2012 was 827 million in the developing world versus 842 million in the developed world. FAO only shows figures for the developing world: these are about 1.5% less than the world total. I doublechecked that the online data that I referred to is for the world total. None of the comparisons in my post were “apples and oranges”. I’ve added some text in square brackets to add clarification to which figures are for the developing world.

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