UN revises world hunger figures

The United Nations has admitted that its 2009 headline-grabbing announcement that one billion people in the world were hungry was off-target and that the number is actually more like 870 million.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) blamed flawed methodology and poor data for the erroneous projection, and said it now uses a much more accurate set of parameters and statistics to calculate its annual estimate of the world's hungry.

FAO issued its 2012 state of food insecurity report on Tuesday, and its core point was to set the record straight about the number of the world's undernourished people, applying the more accurate data retroactively back to 1990.

And the good news, FAO said, is that the number of hungry people has actually been declining steadily - rather than increasing - over the past two decades, although progress has slowed since the 2007-2008 food crises and the global economic downturn.

FAO said that if the right action is taken now to boost economic growth and invest in agriculture, particularly in poor countries, the UN goal of reducing by half the number of the world's hungry people by 2015 is very much within reach.

In a foreword to the report, the heads of the three UN food agencies said that 870 million hungry people is still far too many: "In today's world of unprecedented technical and economic opportunities, we find it entirely unacceptable that more than 100 million children under the age of five are underweight, and are therefore unable to realise their full socio-economic and human potential."

FAO made headlines in 2009 when it announced that one billion people - one-sixth of the world's population - were undernourished. A high-level summit was called at FAO headquarters in Rome and UN food chief Jacques Diouf went on a day-long hunger strike to show solidarity with the one billion.

The Group of Eight devoted much of its summit that year to pledging 20 billion US dollars (£12.5 billion) for seeds, fertilisers and tools to help poor nations feed themselves.

It turned out, though, that the projections were wrong. They were calculated using figures from non-UN sources which were fed into the UN's number-crunching model, because FAO was under pressure from governments to quickly come up with an estimate of how many people might go hungry from the dual crises of high food prices and the global downturn, said Kostas Stamoulis, director of FAO's agricultural development economics division.

"There was considerable fear that that combination of lower incomes and higher prices was going to cause significant undernourishment," said Jomo Kwame Sundaram, FAO's assistant director-general for economic and social development. But now "no one really knows for sure if at any particular period whether that one billion figure was actually reached or not", he said, explaining that the goal is to assess chronic hunger, rather than spikes caused by temporary food shortages and price hikes.