The 2012 Global Hunger Index report came out today, concluding that “progress in reducing the proportion of hungry people in the world has been tragically slow” and rating the global hunger situation as “serious.” If the planet were a country, it would be pale orange on the map below.

The Global Hunger Index is a product of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, working with the German anti-hunger group Welthungerhilfe and the Irish charity Concern Worldwide.

“Hunger” is a pretty flabby word (academics hate it), but the index weighs three specific things: the proportion of undernourished people (measured by the number of calories they consume), the proportion of underweight children and the child mortality rate. So the emphasis is not on whether a country is producing enough food or whether trade flows or food prices or crop yields are going up or down, but on whether actual people are getting what they need to survive and thrive. 

Hunger statistics are notoriously tricky (see postscript below), and several countries – including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Somalia – don’t provide enough data and aren’t on the list. But a few findings jump out. One is that there’s been genuine improvement over the last 20 years, and the trend seems to be continuing. The number of countries whose hunger situation is rated “alarming” or “extremely alarming” dropped from 26 in last year’s report to 20 this year. Another is that the distinction of world’s hungriest region has shifted from sub-Saharan Africa, which has made impressive progress over the last few years, to South Asia, where economic growth has failed to translate into better nutrition for hundreds of millions of people (no one seems to know why).

The theme of this year’s report is the connection between hunger and pressures on land, water and fuel. That’s because the people who are most vulnerable to resource scarcity and degradation are also the most vulnerable to hunger. If the nutrition trends of the last 20 years are generally positive, trends in land, water and fuel use are not. This is a political issue as much as it is a technical one. The report’s first policy recommendation is to find ways to protect poor farmers from losing their land to big investors. You can see the rest of the recommendations here.

As the report’s authors point out, statistics are good for understanding where we are in relation to where we’ve been. Knowing where we’re going is another challenge entirely.  

Postscript: It’s been an eventful week in the world of hunger statistics, as organizations gear up for World Food Day on Tuesday. A few days ago, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization admitted that its blockbuster 2009 announcement that 1.02 billion people were hungry was not really accurate; the actual number was closer to 870 million. Ironically, the revision came on the same day that Sir Gordon Conway, a big name in international agriculture circles, launched a book titled, “One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?” Too late to reprint the cover, alas. 

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Jonathan Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a journalism cooperative specializing in public radio features and documentaries. As a freelance journalist, he has reported from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the U.S. for NPR, BBC, CBC, American Public Media's Marketplace, Monitor Radio, VOA, Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle. He also has written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Parents, American Way, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. For 13 years, he lived and worked in the Philippines and Peru. 

Jon is currently serving as executive producer of "Food for 9 Billion," a collaborative project of Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media's Marketplace, PRI's The World, and PBS NewsHour. He was executive producer of Homelands' award-winning "WORKING" project profiling workers in the global economy (2007-09) and the "Worlds of Difference" series about the responses of traditional societies to rapid cultural change (2002-05).