2011 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics
World Hunger Education Service
This fact sheet is divided into the following sections:
Hunger is a term which has three meanings (Oxford English Dictionary 1971)
World hunger refers to the second definition, aggregated to the world level. The related technical term (in this case operationalized in medicine) is malnutrition.1
Malnutrition is a general term that indicates a lack of some or all nutritional elements necessary for human health (Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia).
There are two basic types of malnutrition. The first and most important is protein-energy malnutrition--the lack of enough protein (from meat and other sources) and food that provides energy (measured in calories) which all of the basic food groups provide. This is the type of malnutrition that is referred to when world hunger is discussed. The second type of malnutrition, also very important, is micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiency. This is not the type of malnutrition that is referred to when world hunger is discussed, though it is certainly very important.
[Recently there has also been a move to include obesity as a third form of malnutrition. Considering obesity as malnutrition expands the previous usual meaning of the term which referred to poor nutrition due to lack of food inputs.2 It is poor nutrition, but it is certainly not typically due to a lack of calories, but rather too many (although poor food choices, often due to poverty, are part of the problem). Obesity will not be considered here, although obesity is certainly a health problem and is increasingly considered as a type of malnutrition.]
Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) is the most lethal form of malnutrition/hunger. It is basically a lack of calories and protein. Food is converted into energy by humans, and the energy contained in food is measured by calories. Protein is necessary for key body functions including provision of essential amino acids and development and maintenance of muscles.
No one really knows how many people are malnourished. The statistic most frequently cited is that of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which measures 'undernutrition'. The most recent estimate, released in October 2010 by FAO, says that 925 million people are undernourished. As the figure below shows, the number of hungry people has increased since 1995-97, though the number is down from last year. The increase has been due to three factors: 1) neglect of agriculture relevant to very poor people by governments and international agencies; 2) the current worldwide economic crisis, and 3) the significant increase of food prices in the last several years which has been devastating to those with only a few dollars a day to spend. 925 million people is 13.6 percent of the estimated world population of 6.8 billion, . Nearly all of the undernourished are in developing countries.
Number of hungry people, 1969-2010
The FAO estimate is based on statistical aggregates. It looks at a country's income level and income distribution and uses this information to estimate how many people receive such a low level of income that they are malnourished. It is not an estimate based on seeing to what extent actual people are malnourished and projecting from there (as would be done by survey sampling). [It has been argued that the FAO approach is not sufficient to give accurate estimates of malnutrition (Poverty and Undernutrition p. 298 by Peter Svedberg).]
Undernutrition is a relatively new concept, but is increasingly used. It should be taken as basically equivalent to malnutrition. (It should be said as an aside, that the idea of undernourishment, its relationship to malnutrition, and the reasons for its emergence as a concept is not clear to Hunger Notes.)
Children are the most visible victims of undernutrition. Children who are poorly nourished suffer up to 160 days of illness each year. Poor nutrition plays a role in at least half of the 10.9 million child deaths each year--five million deaths. Undernutrition magnifies the effect of every disease, including measles and malaria. The estimated proportions of deaths in which undernutrition is an underlying cause are roughly similar for diarrhea (61%), malaria (57%), pneumonia (52%), and measles (45%) (Black 2003, Bryce 2005). Malnutrition can also be caused by diseases, such as the diseases that cause diarrhea, by reducing the body's ability to convert food into usable nutrients.
According to the most recent estimate that Hunger Notes could find, malnutrition, as measured by stunting, affects 32.5 percent of children in developing countries--one of three (de Onis 2000). Geographically, more than 70 percent of malnourished children live in Asia, 26 percent in Africa and 4 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. In many cases, their plight began even before birth with a malnourished mother. Under-nutrition among pregnant women in developing countries leads to 1 out of 6 infants born with low birth weight. This is not only a risk factor for neonatal deaths, but also causes learning disabilities, mental, retardation, poor health, blindness and premature death.
The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9). The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.
What are the causes of hunger is a fundamental question, with varied answers.
Poverty is the principal cause of hunger. The causes of poverty include poor people's lack of resources, an extremely unequal income distribution in the world and within specific countries, conflict, and hunger itself. As of 2008 (2005 statistics), the World Bank has estimated that there were an estimated 1,345 million poor people in developing countries who live on $1.25 a day or less.3 This compares to the later FAO estimate of 1.02 billion undernourished people. Extreme poverty remains an alarming problem in the world’s developing regions, despite some progress that reduced "dollar--now $1.25-- a day" poverty from (an estimated) 1900 million people in 1981, a reduction of 29 percent over the period. Progress in poverty reduction has been concentrated in Asia, and especially, East Asia, with the major improvement occurring in China. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people in extreme poverty has increased. The statement that 'poverty is the principal cause of hunger' is, though correct, unsatisfying. Why then are (so many) people poor? The next section summarizes Hunger Notes answer.
Harmful economic systems are the principal cause of poverty and hunger. Hunger Notes believes that the principal underlying cause of poverty and hunger is the ordinary operation of the economic and political systems in the world. Essentially control over resources and income is based on military, political and economic power that typically ends up in the hands of a minority, who live well, while those at the bottom barely survive, if they do. We have described the operation of this system in more detail in our special section on Harmful economic systems.
Conflict as a cause of hunger and poverty. At the end of 2005, the global number of refugees was at its lowest level in almost a quarter of a century. Despite some large-scale repatriation movements, the last three years have witnessed a significant increase in refugee numbers, due primarily to the violence taking place in Iraq and Somalia. By the end of 2008, the total number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate exceeded 10 million. The number of conflict-induced internally displaced persons (IDPs) reached some 26 million worldwide at the end of the year . Providing exact figures on the number of stateless people is extremely difficult But, important, (relatively) visible though it is, and anguishing for those involved conflict is less important as poverty (and its causes) as a cause of hunger. (Using the statistics above 1.02 billion people suffer from chronic hunger while 36 million people are displaced [UNHCR 2008])
Hunger is also a cause of poverty. By causing poor health, low levels of energy, and even mental impairment, hunger can lead to even greater poverty by reducing people's ability to work and learn.
Climate change Climate change is increasingly viewed as a current and future cause of hunger and poverty. Increasing drought, flooding, and changing climatic patterns requiring a shift in crops and farming practices that may not be easily accomplished are three key issues. See the Hunger Notes special report: Hunger, the environment, and climate change for further information, especially articles in the section: Climate change, global warming and the effect on poor people such as Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year, study says and Could food shortages bring down civilization?
The target set at the 1996 World Food Summit was to halve the number of undernourished people by 2015 from their number in 1990-92. (FAO uses three year averages in its calculation of undernourished people.) The (estimated) number of undernourished people in developing countries was 824 million in 1990-92. In 2009, the number had climbed to 1.02 billion people. The WFS goal is a global goal adopted by the nations of the world; the present outcome indicates how marginal the efforts were in face of the real need.
So, overall, the world is not making progress toward the world food summit goal, although there has been progress in Asia, and in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Quite a few trace elements or micronutrients--vitamins and minerals--are important for health. 1 out of 3 people in developing countries are affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, according to the World Health Organization. Three, perhaps the most important in terms of health consequences for poor people in developing countries, are:
Vitamin A Vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness and reduces the body's resistance to disease. In children Vitamin A deficiency can also cause growth retardation. Between 100 and 140 million children are vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. (World Health Organization)
Iron Iron deficiency is a principal cause of anemia. Two billion people—over 30 percent of the world’s population—are anemic, mainly due to iron deficiency, and, in developing countries, frequently exacerbated by malaria and worm infections. For children, health consequences include premature birth, low birth weight, infections, and elevated risk of death. Later, physical and cognitive development are impaired, resulting in lowered school performance. For pregnant women, anemia contributes to 20 percent of all maternal deaths (World Health Organization).
Iodine Iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) jeopardize children’s mental health– often their very lives. Serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy may result in stillbirths, abortions and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism, a grave, irreversible form of mental retardation that affects people living in iodine-deficient areas of Africa and Asia. IDD also causes mental impairment that lowers intellectual prowess at home, at school, and at work. IDD affects over 740 million people, 13 percent of the world’s population. Fifty million people have some degree of mental impairment caused by IDD (World Health Organization).
(Updated November 14, 2010)
1. The relation between hunger, malnutrition, and other terms such as undernutrition is not 'perfectly clear,' so we have attempted to spell them out briefly in "World Hunger Facts."
2. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (1971 edition) has 'insufficient nutrition' as the only meaning for malnutrition.
3. The table used to calculate this number.
|Region||% in $1.25 a day poverty||Population (millions)||Pop. in $1 a day poverty (millions)|
|East Asia and Pacific||16.8||1,884||316|
|Latin America and the Caribbean||8.2||550||45|
|Total Developing countries||28,8||4673||1345|
|Europe and Central Asia||0.04||473||17|
|Middle East and North Africa||0.04||305||11|
Source: See World Bank PovcalNet "Replicate the World Bank's Regional Aggregation" at http://iresearch.worldbank.org/PovcalNet/povDuplic.html (accessed May 7, 2010). Also see World Bank "PovcalNet" at http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTDEC/EXTRESEARCH/EXTPROGRAMS/EXTPOVRES/EXTPOVCALNET/0,,contentMDK:21867101~pagePK:64168427~piPK:64168435~theSitePK:5280443,00.html
Black RE, Morris SS, Bryce J. "Where and why are 10 million children dying every year?" Lancet. 2003 Jun 28;361(9376):2226-34.
Black, Robert E, Lindsay H Allen, Zulfiqar A Bhutta, Laura E Caulfield, Mercedes de Onis, Majid Ezzati, Colin Mathers, Juan Rivera, for the Maternal and Child Undernutrition Study Group Maternal and child undernutrition: global and regional exposures and health consequences. (Article access may require registration) The Lancet Vol. 371, Issue 9608, 19 January 2008, 243-260.
Jennifer Bryce, Cynthia Boschi-Pinto, Kenji Shibuya, Robert E. Black, and the WHO Child Health Epidemiology Reference Group. 2005. "WHO estimates of the causes of death in children." Lancet ; 365: 1147–52.
Caulfield LE, de Onis M, Blössner M, Black RE. Undernutrition as an underlying cause of child deaths associated with diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, and measles. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2004; 80: 193–98.
Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion. June 2004. "How have the world’s poorest fared since the early 1980s?" World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3341 Washington: World Bank.
de Onis, Mercedes,Edward A. Frongillo and Monika Blossner. 2000. "Is malnutrition declining? An analysis of changes in levels of child malnutrition since 1980." Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2000, : 1222–1233.
Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Food Program. 2002 "Reducing Poverty and Hunger, the Critical Role of Financing for Food, Agriculture, and Rural Development."
Food and Agriculture Organization. 2006. State of World Food Insecurity 2006
Food and Agriculture Organization. 2009. State of World Food Insecurity 2009
International Food Policy Research Institute. 2009. 2009 Global Hunger Index
Oxford University Press. 1971. Oxford English Dictionary. Definition for malnutrition.
Pelletier DL, Frongillo EA Jr, Schroeder D, Habicht JP. The effects of malnutrition on child mortality in developing countries. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 1995; 73: 443–48.
Svedberg, Peter. 2000. Poverty and Undernutrition p. 298.
UNHCR 2008 Global Report 2008 "The Year in Review" http://www.unhcr.org/4a2d0b1d2.pdf
World Bank. Understanding Poverty website
World Health Organization Comparative Quantification of Health Risks: Childhood and Maternal Undernutition
Myths About Hunger
Not Enough Food to Go Around
Reality: Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world's food supply. Enough wheat, rice and other grains are produced to provide every human being with 3,500 calories a day. That doesn't even count many other commonly eaten foods - vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. Enough food is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide: two and half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs-enough to make most people fat! The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. Even most "hungry countries" have enough food for all their people right now. Many are net exporters of food and other agricultural products.
Nature's to Blame for Famine
Reality: It's too easy to blame nature. Human-made forces are making people increasingly vulnerable to nature's vagaries. Food is always available for those who can afford it—starvation during hard times hits only the poorest. Millions live on the brink of disaster in south Asia, Africa and elsewhere, because they are deprived of land by a powerful few, trapped in the unremitting grip of debt, or miserably paid. Natural events rarely explain deaths; they are simply the final push over the brink. Human institutions and policies determine who eats and who starves during hard times. Likewise, in America many homeless die from the cold every winter, yet ultimate responsibility doesn't lie with the weather. The real culprits are an economy that fails to offer everyone opportunities, and a society that places economic efficiency over compassion.
Too Many People
Reality: Birth rates are falling rapidly worldwide as remaining regions of the Third World begin the demographic transition—when birth rates drop in response to an earlier decline in death rates. Although rapid population growth remains a serious concern in many countries, nowhere does population density explain hunger. For every Bangladesh, a densely populated and hungry country, we find a Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia, where abundant food resources coexist with hunger. Costa Rica, with only half of Honduras' cropped acres per person, boasts a life expectancy—one indicator of nutrition —11 years longer than that of Honduras and close to that of developed countries. Rapid population growth is not the root cause of hunger. Like hunger itself, it results from underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women, of economic opportunity and security. Rapid population growth and hunger are endemic to societies where land ownership, jobs, education, health care, and old age security are beyond the reach of most people. Those Third World societies with dramatically successful early and rapid reductions of population growth rates-China, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Cuba and the Indian state of Kerala-prove that the lives of the poor, especially poor women, must improve before they can choose to have fewer children.
The Environment vs. More Food?
Reality: We should be alarmed that an environmental crisis is undercutting our food-production resources, but a tradeoff between our environment and the world's need for food is not inevitable. Efforts to feed the hungry are not causing the environmental crisis. Large corporations are mainly responsible for deforestation-creating and profiting from developed-country consumer demand for tropical hardwoods and exotic or out-of-season food items. Most pesticides used in the Third World are applied to export crops, playing little role in feeding the hungry, while in the U.S. they are used to give a blemish-free cosmetic appearance to produce, with no improvement in nutritional value.
Alternatives exist now and many more are possible. The success of organic farmers in the U.S. gives a glimpse of the possibilities. Cuba's recent success in overcoming a food crisis through self-reliance and sustainable, virtually pesticide-free agriculture is another good example. Indeed, environmentally sound agricultural alternatives can be more productive than environmentally destructive ones.
The Green Revolution is the Answer
Reality: The production advances of the Green Revolution are no myth. Thanks to the new seeds, million of tons more grain a year are being harvested. But focusing narrowly on increasing production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power that determines who can buy the additional food. That's why in several of the biggest Green Revolution successes—India, Mexico, and the Philippines—grain production and in some cases, exports, have climbed, while hunger has persisted and the long-term productive capacity of the soil is degraded. Now we must fight the prospect of a 'New Green Revolution' based on biotechnology, which threatens to further accentuate inequality.
We Need Large Farms
Reality: Large landowners who control most of the best land often leave much of it idle. Unjust farming systems leave farmland in the hands of the most inefficient producers. By contrast, small farmers typically achieve at least four to five times greater output per acre, in part because they work their land more intensively and use integrated, and often more sustainable, production systems. Without secure tenure, the many millions of tenant farmers in the Third World have little incentive to invest in land improvements, to rotate crops, or to leave land fallow for the sake of long-term soil fertility. Future food production is undermined. On the other hand, redistribution of land can favor production. Comprehensive land reform has markedly increased production in countries as diverse as Japan, Zimbabwe, and Taiwan. A World Bank study of northeast Brazil estimates that redistributing farmland into smaller holdings would raise output an astonishing 80 percent.The Free Market Can End Hunger
Reality: Unfortunately, such a "market-is-good, government-is-bad" formula can never help address the causes of hunger. Such a dogmatic stance misleads us that a society can opt for one or the other, when in fact every economy on earth combines the market and government in allocating resources and distributing goods. The market's marvelous efficiencies can only work to eliminate hunger, however, when purchasing power is widely dispersed.
So all those who believe in the usefulness of the market and the necessity of ending hunger must concentrate on promoting not the market, but the consumers! In this task, government has a vital role to play in countering the tendency toward economic concentration, through genuine tax, credit, and land reforms to disperse buying power toward the poor. Recent trends toward privatization and de-regulation are most definitely not the answer.
Free Trade is the Answer
Reality: The trade promotion formula has proven an abject failure at alleviating hunger. In most Third World countries exports have boomed while hunger has continued unabated or actually worsened. While soybean exports boomed in Brazil-to feed Japanese and European livestock-hunger spread from one-third to two-thirds of the population. Where the majority of people have been made too poor to buy the food grown on their own country's soil, those who control productive resources will, not surprisingly, orient their production to more lucrative markets abroad. Export crop production squeezes out basic food production. Pro-trade policies like NAFTA and GATT pit working people in different countries against each other in a 'race to the bottom,' where the basis of competition is who will work for less, without adequate health coverage or minimum environmental standards. Mexico and the U.S. are a case in point: since NAFTA we have had a net loss of 250,000 jobs here, while Mexico has lost 2 million, and hunger is on the rise in both countries.
Too Hungry to Fight for Their Rights
Reality: Bombarded with images of poor people as weak and hungry, we lose sight of the obvious: for those with few resources, mere survival requires tremendous effort. If the poor were truly passive, few of them could even survive. Around the world, from the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, to the farmers' movement in India, wherever people are suffering needlessly, movements for change are underway. People will feed themselves, if allowed to do so. It's not our job to 'set things right' for others. Our responsibility is to remove the obstacles in their paths, obstacles often created by large corporations and U.S. government, World Bank and IMF policies.We Benefit From Their Poverty
Reality: The biggest threat to the well-being of the vast majority of Americans is not the advancement but the continued deprivation of the hungry. Low wages-both abroad and in inner cities at home-may mean cheaper bananas, shirts, computers and fast food for most Americans, but in other ways we pay heavily for hunger and poverty. Enforced poverty in the Third World jeopardizes U.S. jobs, wages and working conditions as corporations seek cheaper labor abroad. In a global economy, what American workers have achieved in employment, wage levels, and working conditions can be protected only when working people in every country are freed from economic desperation.
Here at home, policies like welfare reform throw more people into the job market than can be absorbed-at below minimum wage levels in the case of 'workfare'-which puts downward pressure on the wages of those on higher rungs of the employment ladder. The growing numbers of 'working poor' are those who have part- or full-time low wage jobs yet cannot afford adequate nutrition or housing for their families. Educating ourselves about the common interests most Americans share with the poor in the Third World and at home allows us to be compassionate without sliding into pity. In working to clear the way for the poor to free themselves from economic oppression, we free ourselves as well.
Curtail Freedom to End Hunger?
Reality: There is no theoretical or practical reason why freedom, taken to mean civil liberties, should be incompatible with ending hunger. Surveying the globe, we see no correlation between hunger and civil liberties. However, one narrow definition of freedom-the right to unlimited accumulation of wealth-producing property and the right to use that property however one sees fit-is in fundamental conflict with ending hunger. By contrast, a definition of freedom more consistent with our nation's dominant founding vision holds that economic security for all is the guarantor of our liberty. Such an understanding of freedom is essential to ending hunger.
Hunger is the most commonly used term to describe the social condition of people (or organisms) who frequently experience, or live with the threat of experiencing, the physical sensation of desiring food.
On October 11, 2010, it was reported that the number of malnourished people in the world exceeded 1 billion people, about a sixth of the world's total population.
Six million children die of hunger every year.
According to estimates by the FAO there were 925 million undernourished people in the world in 2010. This was a decrease from an estimate of 1023 million undernourished people in 2009. The same organization reports that there were 923 million malnourished people in the world in 2007, which in turn represented an increase of 80 million since 1990. The FAO purports that the world already produces enough food to feed everyone — 6 billion people — and could feed double — 12 billion people.
As the number of hungering people is a subset of the under- or malnourished number, the number of people in hunger is smaller. The statistics here may provide some indication but should not be quoted as numbers or shares of people in hunger.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "850 million people worldwide were undernourished in 1999 to 2005" and the number of hungry people has recently been increasing widely.
There is a wide range of opinions as to why this problem is so persistent. Organizations such as Food First raise the issue of food sovereignty and claim that every country on earth (with the possible minor exceptions of some city-states) has sufficient agricultural capacity to feed its own people, but that the "free trade" economic order associated with such institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank prevent this from happening. At the other end of the spectrum, the World Bank itself claims to be part of the solution to hunger, claiming that the best way for countries to succeed in breaking the cycle of poverty and hunger is to build export-led economies that will give them the financial means to buy foodstuffs on the world market.
Amartya Sen won his 1998 Nobel Prize in part for his work in demonstrating that hunger in modern times was not typically the product of a lack of food; rather, hunger usually arose from problems in food distribution networks or from governmental policies in the developing world.
There is a growing sense among governments and global institutions that eradicating hunger is a fundamental challenge for the 21st century. The United Nations has three agencies that work to promote food security and agricultural development: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). All three of these agencies are based in Rome, Italy. FAO is the world’s agricultural knowledge agency, providing policy and technical assistance to developing countries to promote food security, nutrition and sustainable agricultural production, particularly in rural areas. FAO also acts as a neutral forum where all nations meet as equals to negotiate agreements and debate policy. WFP’s key mission is to deliver food into the hands of the hungry poor. The agency steps in during emergencies and uses food to aid recovery after emergencies. Its longer term approaches to hunger help the transition from recovery to development. IFAD, with its knowledge of rural poverty and exclusive focus on poor rural people, designs and implements programmes to help those people access the assets, services and opportunities they need to overcome poverty.
Poverty is being unable to afford basic human needs, such as clean and fresh water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter. This is also referred to as absolute poverty or destitution. Relative poverty is the condition of having fewer resources or less income than others within a society or country, or compared to worldwide averages. About 1.7 billion people live in absolute poverty.
Poverty is additionally seen as a state of mind and a lifestyle- more than just a lack of materials. It is a state of deprivation and insecurity. Even those who can get above poverty are always close to falling back into its clutches. 
Accumulation of wealth, sometimes resulting in overall poverty reduction within a nation or society, has historically been a result of economic growth. Economic growth (meaning, increased levels of production), for example due to improvements in technology like computers, makes more wealth available. Wealth distribution however, often occurs along highly unequal lines. This sometimes prompts redistributive approaches to poverty reduction. Investments in modernizing agriculture and increasing yields via green revolution technology is often considered the core of the antipoverty effort. This is because three-quarters of the world's poor are rural farmers.
However, alternative theories of development economics cite the process of agricultural industrialization as a driver of unequal land distribution, declining food security, and rural-urban migration.
Neoliberal approaches to development, as promoted by the World Bank, IMF, and WTO include extending and enforcing property rights, especially to land, to the poor, and making financial services, notably savings, accessible. While this process encourages integration into the global market, some sectors of society, especially informal subsistence farmers and indigenous peoples, who often struggle to gain legal recognition of property rights, can be negatively affected. Inefficient institutions, corruption and political instability can also make state recognition of such rights difficult. Government support in health, education and infrastructure helps alleviate poverty by increasing human and physical capital.