week, Oxfam launched its new international campaign,
to fight food insecurity. The advocacy organization's
campaign materials cite many of the statistics with
which the post-food-crisis world has become familiar.
Most common is the estimate that more than one billion
people in the world are now hungry as a result of
the combined impacts of rising food prices and the
global economic recession. The estimate comes from
the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),
and few have questioned the validity of the numbers.
Now two studies suggest the estimate may be inflated.
In the May/June special issue of Foreign Policy magazine
on food, Abhijit
Bannerjee and Esther Duflo, from their perches
at MIT's Poverty Lab Project, have an article with
the provocative subtitle, ''but what if the experts
are wrong?'' Meanwhile, IFPRI's Derek Headey, in a
post, examines the prevailing FAO/World Bank methodologies
for estimating global hunger and suggests that these
institutions are overestimating hunger, mainly because
they discount the positive impacts of economic growth
in some of the world's most populous countries.
On closer inspection, Bannerjee and Duflo deepen our
understanding of the nature of hunger in developing
countries, but they offer little here to call into
question the billion-hungry estimate. Headey, on the
other hand, is onto something, but it's worth going
deeper still to understand the relationship between
poverty, high food and agricultural prices, economic
growth, and government policy.
Bannerjee and Duflo, using their highly empirical
Poverty Lab methodologies, really aren't trying to
answer the question of how many hungry people there
are on the planet. Rather, they make us look more
closely at the nature of hunger and poverty, pointing
out that simple economic assumptions about the poor's
food-buying and food-consuming habits are fraught
with misconceptions. For example, they assert from
their field experience that the poor choose foods
not only or even primarily based on cost and nutritional
value but based on how good they taste. This is a
worthwhile read, but this in no way answers FP's provocative
title questioning the prevalence of hunger.
Headey is more on-target with his critique of the
global numbers. In his VoxEU
summary, a post
on Dani Rodrik's blog, and in a longer
paper, he compares the common FAO/WB method for
estimating hunger using simulation analysis based
on caloric intake with his own culling of international
Gallup polling data on self-reported hunger and food
insecurity. His results are striking, suggesting that
from 2005/6 to 2007/8, when agricultural prices skyrocketed,
the number of hungry in the 70 countries for which
there was data declined by 408 million.
How could this be? I'm not going to summarize his
full argument and data here; he does a nice job of
that on his VoxEU post. But he claims that the Gallup
data show that in the largest developing countries
with the largest number of poor and hungry, notably
China and India, economic growth more than made up
for any negative impacts from rising food prices.
Headey calls for a re-examination of the methodologies
for estimating global hunger, and his data certainly
justify that call. That said, China has been the dragon
in the room for a lot of statistical anomalies in
recent years, with its fast growth, declining poverty,
and large population swamping generalizations about
progress in ''the developing world.'' Headey notes that
China accounts for two-thirds of the decline in self-reported
food insecurity, and a closer look at his data suggests
that a large portion of developing countries experienced
an increase in hunger in that same period. So for
those who might take this data as a reason to do less
about global food insecurity: not so fast!
There are other important unanswered
questions in Headey's study:
- The period he studied did not fully account for
the impact of the economic downturn on the global
economy. As such, he was measuring the impact of
food price inflation, not its toxic combination
with slow or negative economic growth. That's what
the poor have faced; to deal with global hunger,
that's what we need to understand.
- There were important policy reasons that high
agricultural prices did not have as big an impact
in some parts of the world, notably China and India.
Both are relatively self-sufficient in their most
basic foods, and both maintained buffer stocks with
which they could offset rising international prices.
So one would expect to see lower impacts of rising
food prices because, well, food prices didn't rise
as much. How does his analysis account for this?
- I've argued in an earlier
blog post that high agricultural prices can
be good for development and poverty/hunger in countries
where a large share of the poor work in agriculture.
Countries such as China and India. So to what extent
is the decline in self-reported food insecurity
reflecting the positive economic-stimulus effects
of higher prices– in farmer incomes and returns
to unskilled labor in and out of agriculture?
Headey starts an important discussion. Hopefully
it takes place without undercutting concern for
global food insecurity and the worthy campaigns
to address it, such as Oxfam's.