Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  Is there a perfect recipe for estimating the hungry?

In its latest report on food insecurity in the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that India has lagged behind other countries in reducing hunger. The share of hungry people in developing regions fell 11 percentage points to 12.3% between 1990-92 and 2014-16, according to its projections, while the share of hungry people in India fell only by 8 percentage points to 15.2% over the same period, the FAO estimated. India is home to 194.6 million of the 794.6 million undernourished people in the world, according to the report.

A problem with the FAO’s report is that it uses the terms hungry and undernourished interchangeably. In reality, many people who are undernourished because of an inadequate diet may not be hungry.

How do we then know how many Indians go hungry to bed each night? The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) provides one answer. According to the NSSO’s consumption survey reports, 99% of rural households in India were getting two square meals a day throughout the year in 2009-10. This figure was 94.5% in 1993-94. For urban households, the figure rose from 98% to 99.6% during this period.

These figures were widely cited by critics of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), who argued that an Act aimed to tackle hunger was meaningless in a country where hunger had fallen to such low levels. Although malnutrition was a serious problem in the country, hunger was not, argued economist Arvind Virmani, citing NSSO and National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data.

But a recent research paper by S. Chandrasekhar and Vijay Laxmi Pandey of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, has raised serious questions on the reliability of using the NSSO’s numbers for estimating hunger. The authors argued that problems in framing questions on hunger led to gross underestimation of hunger in the NSSO reports. They pointed to the findings of the 2013 Comprehensive Nutrition Survey (CNS) in Maharashtra, which asked detailed questions on food security, to challenge the NSSO figures.

The CNS results showed that only 58% of the households in Maharashtra did not worry that they would not have enough food. The NSSO’s 2009-10 estimates had put the number of people getting two square meals a day in Maharashtra at 99.5% in rural areas and 100% in urban areas. Maharashtra was above the national average in terms of the proportion of people getting two square meals in both rural and urban areas, according to NSSO data.

If one extrapolates the CNS findings to estimate hunger at the national level, the proportion of hungry people in the country will shoot up dramatically.

The framing of questions on food adequacy is just one aspect of the hunger estimation conundrum. Subjective measures such as the adequacy of food consumption or other food security measures such as the FAO’s undernourishment estimate can be very different from objective measures such as those of poverty.

According to the FAO’s projected estimate of undernourishment for 2014-16, 194 million people are undernourished in India. The latest official poverty data (2011-12) for India puts the number of people below the poverty line at around 270 million.

Such discrepancies are not unique to India. A 2006 paper compared subjective measures such as perception of food adequacy with objective measures such as poverty headcount and calorie thresholds in Nepal, Madagascar, Albania and Indonesia. The divergence between the perception of food adequacy and the national poverty headcount ranged from -18 to 27 percentage points.

In case of the FAO measure, the divergence was in the range of 4 to 46 percentage points. The authors explained this divergence by attributing extra factors such as uncertainty about the future or temporal changes in income levels to subjective perceptions about food adequacy.

In 2013, the US department of agriculture estimated 14.3% of households to be food insecure in the country. In absolute terms, this would mean around 45 million were food insecure. That is more than the number of undernourished people in Pakistan, going by the FAO’s latest estimates.

What explains these divergences? Do rich countries adhere to higher standards of food security than poor ones? Does the FAO’s undernourishment indicator capture food insecurity adequately? Are there other, better indicators of capturing food insecurity?

There is a broad agreement among scholars that food security must include four dimensions—food availability, economic and physical access to food, food utilization and stability over time.

The FAO’s undernourishment estimate is benchmarked on meeting calorie requirements of a sedentary lifestyle. In FAO terminology, such a lifestyle involves eight hours each of sleeping and sitting (office work, selling produce, tending shop); two hours of light leisure activities; and an hour each of personal care (dressing, showering), eating, cooking, general household work, driving a car to/from work and walking at varying paces without a load. Clearly, the majority of the poor have to undertake much more physical activity than what the sedentary lifestyle measure would capture.

In 2012, the FAO estimated that around 1.5 billion people were “food inadequate". These estimates were based on the assumption that people in developing regions are engaged in normal physical activity and not minimal/sedentary levels. The undernourishment indicator gave a number of only 868 million that year. It also fails to capture within-year fluctuations in calorie intake. Besides, any holistic measurement of undernourishment can’t be based only on calorie intakes. Calorie-based indicators cannot capture deficiencies of micronutrients, which are extremely important for healthy growth.

It is also worth noting that the transition from theory to public policy is often shaped by political considerations, and food security is no exception.

World Trade Organization (WTO) rules consider cash-transfer-based food security programmes to be non-trade distorting. This allows countries to spend heavily on such programmes without the fear of breaching their permissible domestic support levels to agriculture. The US has taken advantage of this exemption to run the biggest food security programme in the world, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP). In 2014, average participation in SNAP was around 46 million and it cost around $74 billion. SNAP expenditure was identified as a more effective fiscal stimulus than tax cuts under the Bush stimulus package.

The WTO exemption comes with one catch—food security programmes should be clearly tied to a nutrition criterion. But as long as definitions of undernutrition are liberal enough, countries such as the US can fulfil the clause and fund large food assistance programmes without inviting censure from the global trade body.

However, such practices may come in the way of a common and universally agreed-upon definition of hunger across the world. The hindrance in this case is not scholastic disagreement but political disagreement among countries.

How can policy be designed in the face of such data limitations? There are two broad principles which may help.

One, caution must be observed in predicating food security policies on estimates of hunger lest there be errors of exclusion or inclusion. For example, if India were to base its public distribution programme on the NSSO’s perceived adequacy of food or the FAO’s undernourishment measures, millions of people engaged in manual labour will be excluded. In fact, the FAO itself cautions against using its estimate for policy purposes.

Two, while there is no unanimity about the perfect measure to capture hunger, different measures do enrich our understanding about the nature of the problem. This calls for enhancing efforts and allocating more resources to collect more data (and more frequently, too) about the various facets of hunger and undernutrition.

It is a sad commentary on the state of nutrition in India that nearly a decade after the last NFHS round, we do not have fresh data on nutritional attainments in the country.

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