Food and hunger are near of the top of the development agenda, with the Olympic ‘hunger summit’ seeing a commitment that next year’s G8 would prioritise the issue too. Nevertheless, data weaknesses remain a severe impediment to effective policy. Save UK policy adviser Liam Crosby, who has been researching this topic for much of 2012, writes here about the current state of play.
The global financial crisis has thrown up some surprises, including finding that development stories can become domestic stories in donor countries. A couple of weeks ago, for example, the front page of the Guardian told the story of a “nutritional recession” in the UK, with rising food prices forcing down consumption of fruits and vegetables, and leading “hard-pressed consumers [to] increasingly choose products perceived to be cheaper and more ‘filling’”.
Such impacts quite rightly garner front page news in a British newspaper. Much less noted—indeed much less counted—are the devastating impacts that high and volatile food prices have in developing countries in almost exactly the same ways: forcing people to prioritise more filling, less nutritious staples and in doing so threatening to lead to long term consequences of malnutrition.
How do food price rises affect children in developing countries? The poorest countries tend to be the most exposed to food price rises, being more likely to be net importers and having less fiscal space to be able to deal with the implications of price rises. Even more worryingly, those countries that are already struggling to fight high burdens of malnutrition tend to be most vulnerable to the impacts of price changes on global food markets. In countries that are ‘highly exposed’ to the negative effects of price rises—that is, countries where cereals make up majority of consumed staples and where at least 40% of cereals are imported—26 % of children are underweight. If these countries could get their collective prevalence down to 10% as experienced in ‘non-exposed’ countries, an estimated 5.7 million fewer children would be underweight. Instead, food price rises threaten to have the opposite effect.
Furthermore, within these low-income countries that are most vulnerable to food price increases, the effects are themselves worst for those in lowest incomes. Data for specific geographic regions (see figure) present a clear message: a nutritious diet often costs more than the total income of the poorest people. Even poor producers don’t appear to benefit from high food prices, as those that can benefit are the large farmers that can export, while the benefits are not passed on to poorer contract farmers. This increases inequality in developing countries.
Food price rises of recent years are likely to be dramatically worsening the situation of food and nutrition security in developing countries, in particular among the poorest people. That’s why it is right that the UK Prime Minister has chosen to host a Hunger Summit on the side of the G8 in 2013. This issue needs to be placed at the top of the international agenda and targeted with much greater resources.
But while there were many similarities between the messages of the Guardian article and those of our recent report, there is also one crucial difference. In the UK there exists a plethora of data for measuring the impacts. A comprehensive dataset from a panel of 30,000 households, for example, constantly monitors the food that people are consuming, allowing development of a detailed, constantly updated picture of food purchasing habits. Crucially, the data are disagreggated across income categories, allowing findings to be made in the UK, such as that those with average salaries under £25,000 are particularly likely to be forced away from healthy foods.
This contrasts sharply with data situation in many developing countries. For example there is no clear data on what the cost of nutritious diet is across countries and how this is impacted by food price increases (Save the Children’s Cost of the Diet is one example but is not widely implemented).
- Even the FAO’s data which estimates the number of people undernourished, has clear methodological problems, as admitted by the FAO itself, which states:
Despite significant improvements … further improvements and better data are needed to capture the effects of food price and other economic shocks.
In particular, the FAO’s data on the prevalence of undernourishment do not consider other aspects of nutrition beyond the cost of minimum caloric requirements, and they do not capture the impact of short-term price shocks. Furthermore they don’t address the distribution of manual labour which means that many of those on low incomes may in fact require more energy – as such they may still underestimate the scale of ‘undernourishment’.
- There is a distinct lack of comparative household level survey data to assess the level of food insecurity in the same way as has been done in the UK. International polls such as the Gallup World Poll could have the potential to address this problem; indeed in 2009 they performed an international household level poll as to precisely this question. FAO and Gallup are moving ahead with building a food/hunger module, which if funded should provide an annual, almost completely global snapshot of data. It should be ensured that funding for such a module is sufficient to include measures of nutrition.
- The best approach to measuring malnutrition within the world is through anthropomorphic measurements. Such data are routinely collected in many developing countries by Demographic and Health Surveys, as well as other National Nutrition Surveys including MICS. These data show clearly the prevalence of malnutrition globally, as well as the social inequalities which mean that the poorest tend to suffer the most. However many problems exist with such data collection: in particular these surveys tend to be provided very irregularly, at as much as 5 year intervals, with the result that analysis of the scale and distribution of the impacts of international price trends on nutrition are difficult, if not impossible to ascertain.
In spite of these large gaps in data, what is clear is that food and nutrition insecurity remains a large problem in the world—one which is being detrimentally affected by food prices volatility around the world—even if it is one that is inadequately counted. Without solid data, however, we cannot be sure of exactly who is being worst affected by the failings of our international food system, and as such we cannot focus our efforts to delivering food and nutrition security for all – instead we have to rely on non-comparable data from specific settings which suggests that inequalities in food security may be increasing.
Improving the quality of data on food and nutrition security at a global level will not be an easy task: surveys such as those that I have mentioned don’t come cheaply. But if we are serious about addressing and understanding this problem, as we can in the UK, we need to have the necessary data for tracking its impacts around the world.