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The World Is Not As Hungry As You Might Think

Back in 1798, English philosopher Thomas Malthus predicted that the world would eventually run out of food for its growing population.

"The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race," he wrote.

The newly released Global Hunger Index paints a different picture.

Deaths due to mass famine have plummeted, according to data from the , Welthungerhilfe and .

Between 1870 and 1970, about 1.4 million people died each year in what Alex de Waal, one of the index report authors, calls "epidemics of starvation." By contrast, about 40,000 people have died each year since 2000 from large-scale hunger.

And hunger levels have dropped by about a third in developing countries since 2000 .

"All the doom and gloom population people would say population growth causes famine. Well, look at the data. It doesn't," says de Waal, who is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a professor of international affairs at Tufts University.

Nonetheless, hunger is still a critical issue. About 800 million people are chronically undernourished, according to the report.

For a positive perspective, the report singles out countries that are making progress. Like kids on a soccer team, the ones that get the "Most Improved" award still have a long way to go. But they're trying.

Azerbaijan's oil boom is one reason for its dramatic improvement since breaking from the Soviet Union.

Hunger in Ukraine has decreased as the economy improves, though political unrest has made access to food unpredictable, according to the World Food Program.

Brazil cut its hunger score by about two-thirds, largely because of national programs like Bolsa Familia, which gives cash to poor households when they meet certain health and education requirements. Researchers at the Federal University of Bahia found that child mortality declined as coverage of the program increased.

The end of large-scale civil wars caused hunger levels to drop in Angola, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Those countries saw the biggest reductions in hunger since 2000. After stagnating in the 1990s, the regional hunger score of sub-Saharan Africa has been improving in line with other regions.

And, says de Waal, "China is really spectacular." The country used to be responsible for more than half the world's death toll from famine. But famines have not been a problem there for the last 50 years.

But there's bad news, too.

Hunger levels are labeled "alarming" in the Central African Republic, Chad, Zambia, Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Madagascar and Afghanistan. Owing to conflict, some countries have gotten nowhere or grown worse in the past 25 years, including Burundi, Comoros, Iraq and Sudan. An HIV/AIDS epidemic crippled Swaziland, bringing nourishment levels down with it.

Afghanistan just made it onto the map after a decade when data were not available and when the country should have been marked dark red for "extremely alarming" levels of hunger, de Waal says. Some of the current gray zone countries, like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, could be in the same situation right now.

Piero Conforti, a statistician with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, says the undernourishment estimates can't be generated for countries with unreliable data. "I don't want to name any countries," he says, but "there are instances in which the government is telling you there is a lot of food around, and this seems not to be the case."

Conforti says the FAO is trying to switch to monitoring food insecurity with a new measure that would be less reliant on government stability.

In some of those missing countries starvation is still being used as a tactic of war, de Waal adds. Take the village of Keilak, Darfur. "It was a case of deliberate starvation," says de Waal, who wrote about the case in the journal The Lancet: "Militiamen and soldiers torched the surrounding villages, forcing 17[,]000 people to flee to the town. Then the armed men surrounded the makeshift camp and stopped anyone leaving. They robbed families of their possessions and beat or shot them if they foraged for food in the remains of their homes or gathered roots and berries in the woodlands. An age-old siege tactic was applied to a defenseless civilian population."

The case exemplifies a fact about hunger today, he says: that "the extremes of starvation that we see are often man-made."

"Not woman-made," he specifies. "Man-made."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rae Ellen Bichell
Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.