THERE'S an old management maxim that goes: You can't change what you don't measure.
When it comes to addressing global food insecurity, the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched a pilot project this month to better assess the severity of hunger around the world.
Gauging a complex issue such as food insecurity is difficult. For example, simply measuring the availability of calories -- a common and often criticized method -- does a poor job of evaluating the distribution of food within a geography and completely ignores the relative nutritive benefits of those calories.
FAO said its new approach is a faster and more precise way of measuring hunger and will be field-tested on a pilot basis in four African nations: Angola, Ethiopia, Malawi and Niger.
The new approach relies on gathering information on both the extent and severity of hunger via a more carefully designed survey conducted in collaboration with polling experts at The Gallup Organization.
According to the project's plan, after the pilot/testing phase, the survey will be extended to more than 160,000 respondents in as many as 150 countries covered by the Gallup World Poll, with results published for each country annually. After a five-year period, the project will lead to the establishment of a new FAO-certified standard for food security monitoring.
Despite recent improvements, FAO said its current methodology is not able to provide a comprehensive picture of the many dimensions of hunger. While the organization said it can accurately monitor food availability at a national scale, especially in terms of potential energy available, the new survey will provide a measure of food access at an individual level, providing a clearer idea of personal experiences with food insecurity.
FAO's "Voices of the Hungry" project will capture nationally representative samples of 1,000-5,000 people, depending on the size of the country surveyed, answering eight questions relative to food insecurity in the preceding 12 months. The questions (see sidebar) are phrased in a way that will allow the organization to establish a "Food Insecurity Experience Scale" that differentiates respondents' experiences as mild, moderate or severe food insecurity.
Results of the new survey will be available in days rather than years, allowing FAO to take what it describes as an "almost real-time snapshot of a nation's food security situation."
The issue of accurately assessing hunger is not new. While a 2011 FAO report on the progress made toward meeting the agency's Millennium Development Goals said as many as 840 million people were hungry or undernourished worldwide, Ohio State University professor of human nutrition Hugo Melgar-Quinonez cautioned that actual global hunger could be double currently available estimates (Feedstuffs, March 12, 2012).
Melgar-Quinonez criticized the old FAO methodology for its singular focus on calories available to a national population because of its failure to address the quality of those calories and the distribution of food to vulnerable demographics within a country's population.
Working with other experts in Latin America, he developed a survey -- launched in Brazil and Colombia in 2007 -- that delved more deeply into questions of food insecurity.
His work, along with similar work conducted elsewhere, led the Committee on World Food Security in 2010 to ask FAO to review its methodology to better assess hunger. That assessment, in part, led to the Voices of the Hungry pilot project and potentially a better tool for measuring and managing global food insecurity.
Asking the right questions
While current methodologies for measuring hunger rely on a crude analysis of available calories relative to a national population, the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization's new survey will ask eight questions of as many as 160,000 respondents in up to 150 countries. The questions are as follows:
During the past 12 months, was there a time when, because of lack of money or other resources:
1. You were worried you would run out of food?
2. You were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food?
3. You ate only a few kinds of foods?
4. You had to skip a meal?
5. You ate less than you thought you should?
6. Your household ran out of food?
7. You were hungry but did not eat?
8. You went without eating for a whole day?