Why do figures matter?

The figures matter very much because they tell us how severe the problem of hunger is and where the hungry people live. They also remind us how far we are still away from the commitment of the international community made at the World Food Summit in 1996, to reduce hunger by half by 2015. SOFI's data and analysis helps to increase global attention to problems of food insecurity and to better direct action aimed at reducing hunger and poverty.

A year ago FAO estimated the number of hungry at 777 million people in developing countries. Now it says there are 799 million hungry people in the developing countries. Does this mean that the number of hungry has increased?

The two publications cannot be so easily compared. The new estimates not only add more recent data, but also correct past data. Member countries continue to revise past data on production and trade, as well as population. Therefore, FAO often has to revise earlier estimates of food availability and the number of undernourished.

In this present case, applying the new data base to the 1997-99 period results in a revised estimate for 1997-99 of 784 million undernourished. Hence, comparing the two three-year-periods using the most recent data base indicates there has indeed been an increase by 15 million between the two periods. The increase in the number of undernourished is mainly related to the increase in total population. Furthermore, most of the 15 million increase is concentrated in a few countries with large populations.

FAO says that 25 000 people are dying of hunger and poverty every day. How do you count the number of hunger victims?

The data is from the World Health Report 2000 (WHO). The main causes leading to the estimates include diseases and lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. The estimate is a relatively conservative estimate, amounting to a little over 9 million deaths per year, of whom 6 million are children under the age of five who die prematurely, as a direct or indirect result of hunger.

More than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient malnutrition, also called the "hidden hunger". What should countries do to improve the living conditions of these people?

The term "hidden hunger" denotes deficiencies of vitamins and minerals. The poor health and loss of human potential that arise from micronutrient deficiencies are enormous, but these effects have often been over-shadowed by the more graphic evidence of protein-energy malnutrition, chronic hunger and starvation. Micronutrient deficiencies can have wide-ranging effects. For example, micronutrient deficient children fail to grow and develop normally; cognition is impaired, often severely and irreversibly; immune systems are compromised; in both adults and children mental and physical capacities are limited; and blindness and death can result.

The key to overcoming micronutrient deficiencies is to focus on helping the poor improve the diversity and overall adequacy of their diets. A sustainable, food-based approach needs to be adopted that has multiple nutritional benefits. Such an approach moves away from focusing on a single micronutrient and recognizes that, in general, diets are deficient in one micronutrient are also likely to be deficient in other nutrients as well, including macronutrients that is protein, carbohydrates and fats. The basic need is to improve total dietary intakes. Efforts to deal with micronutrients should not isolated from efforts to address other problems of malnutrition. Providing supplements and even adding nutrients to food are short term measures, but are no substitutes for more comprehensive solutions.

What is the impact of armed conflicts on food security?

The overall impact is the disruption of food production and normal economic activities by displacing rural populations within a country and across borders. At the household level, thedisplaced are no longer able to produce for themselves and their families and therefore become totally dependent on food assistance or become malnourished and eventually die of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.

At the national level, scarce resources in a poor country are diverted to the conflict (armaments, expanded armies, etc), leaving the country unable to import food to meet requirements. The country therefore also becomes dependent on food aid.

Armed conflicts displace people from their homes or trap them in combat zones and make them dependent on temporary food assistance. In 2001, the number of displaced people was estimated at 37 million (12 million refugees and 25 million internally displaced people).

In conflict situations, food sources and supplies may be intentionally disrupted as a means of starving out civilians from the opposing groups. In 1999 such disruptions left close to 24 million people hungry and in need of humanitarian assistance.

Armed conflict may prevent farmers from producing food and disrupt transport, trade and markets, thereby reducing access to food. FAO has found that conflict-induced losses of agricultural output in sub-Saharan Africa between 1970 and 1997 were equivalent to 75% of all aid received by conflict-affected countries.