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This post is joint with Casey Friedman

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s flagship hunger report came out Monday, featuring a new and improved methodology for estimating the number of undernourished people in the world, and it has two big, good surprises, though there are still hundreds of millions of consistently underfed people.

Perhaps nearly as important, curating the data on agriculture, food, and nutrition is a key part of FAO’s mandate, and quite apart from their encouraging substantive content, the revised hunger estimates represent a real improvement in the quality of FAO’s work. (For further background on the FAO and its sister agencies, the WFP and the FAO, see the CGD Working Group on Food Security and the Rome-Based Agencies).

The first big surprise in the new FAO report is that there may not have been a food crisis in 2007-2008 after all, at least not in terms of a spike in hunger.  According to the new numbers, the number of hungry people didn’t reach 1 billion, a symbol on which FAO has based a major advocacy campaign (now rebranded). In fact, there was no spike in hunger in the 2007-2009 period; the new estimates show a global decrease to 867 million in 2007-09 from 898 million in 2004-06.

Second, we have come a lot further than previously thought, not only because hunger is less endemic now but also because it was more pervasive before.  For the 1990-1992 base period, FAO now estimates that one billion people lacked enough to eat over the course of a year—150 million more than the old figure.  The improvement from the base period to 2007-09 means that the world is nearly on track to reach the MDG target for halving the share of hungry people in the global population by 2015.

So, what happened to the food crisis?

To estimate hunger, FAO makes statistical inferences on the basis of total food supply, population estimates, minimum dietary energy requirements, and differences in household expenditure. In the 2009 and 2010 reports, it imported projections from a USDA model to get more recent figures on hunger than its traditional method permitted, and the increases relying on that model are the ones the new estimates have erased.

technical annex clearly summarizes the new report’s methodological changes. Some of the adjustments come from new or improved data, and some come from revised statistical estimation methods.  The revision’s data innovations cover population size, energy requirements, food supply, and, for the first time, retail food losses. New statistical methods allow for much greater flexibility in modeling access to food within countries.  What’s interesting is that most of the changes result in a decline in the total number of hungry people for recent years, but the inclusion of food losses offsets this effect. If the new methodology had left out food losses, the current estimated number of hungry people would be even lower.