One of my biggest peeves is misleading statistics and factoids. The other day on the Achenblog, Joel Achenbach quoted eminent contrarian scientist David Pimentel. Dr. Pimintel is famous for claiming ethanol costs more energy to make than it produces, and he may have a point. In this case he was talking about how much death and misery is attributable to pollution and throws out this nugget:
Of the world population of about 6.5 billion, 57 percent is malnourished, compared with 20 percent of a world population of 2.5 billion in 1950.
I did the math and 57% of the world is about 3.7 billion people, which is about the combined populations of China, India, Africa, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I called “bull-hockey” and decided to find out if this was accurate. I may not know much about world hunger, but I have mad Googlin’ skilz and ran across some stats that were below his number by a factor of four.
From CARE (an organization that raises money to fight hunger, so they ought to know):
More than 840 million people in the world are malnourished — 799 million of them live in the developing world.
From Bread for the World, another hunger group:
854 million people across the world are hungry, up from 852 million a year ago.
(Never mind that 75 million people were added to the world in that same time frame.)
From the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (which is where most of these other groups get their stats):
In 2001-03, FAO estimates there were still 854 million undernourished people world wide: 820 million in the developing countries, 25 million in the transition countries and 9 million in the industrialized countries.
Wikipedia had this very nice map sourced from the United Nations World Food Programme:
According to an accompanying table, the hunger rate in China, the world’s most populous country, was 12%. The most desparate countries were concentrated in war-torn parts of Africa. I asked Joel to follow up on this magic multi-billion number and he got this reply from Pimintel:
The 850 million people who are malnourished refers only to the people who are protein/calorie malnourished and ignores the people who are iron, iodine, and several vitamins malnourished. WHO reports there are 2 billion who are iron malnourished and the number of deaths from iron malnourishment equals the number of deaths from protein/calorie malnourishment. WHO references for 3.7 billion malnourished (57%) are:
WHO 2004 World Health Report.
WHO 2004 World Health Report.
Heck, by that definition I may be malnourished. I haven’t taken my One-A-Days in years. I searched all through his links which had some very distrubing mortality rate tables, but I just couldn’t find that 3.7 billion number.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t just pull that number out of his posterior, the second part of his alarmist statement is an even more blatant falsehood. He claims world hunger has gotten worse since 1950. He is either comparing apples with oranges or his numbers come from an alternate universe. Remember, in 1950, your parents were being told to eat their vegetables because there were starving children in post-war Europe. In the 60s, between 20 and 43 million people died of famine in China’s Great Leap Forward. According to this FAO table, the rate of malnutrition in the developing world has been cut in half since 1970.
In China today, the biggest problem isn’t starvation, it’s pollution from the hyper-rapid economic expansion. Vietnam, which also had famine in recent memory, now exports rice to Africa. Most food security issues are distribution problems, not production issues. The highest rates of hunger are in war-torn regions where food is used as a weapon.
Hunger is a serious problem and having nearly a billion people without enough to eat is a epic tragedy, but we don’t need to go spreading half-truths to make it sound even worse. One of the most insidious aspects of the internet is that once bad information is out there, it stays and spreads. I tried to find malnutrition information for the 1950s but I kept coming across Pimintel's unsourced quote. The real problem with this sort of fear-mongering is that it makes your other numbers suspect. You need to guard your credibility for when the real wolf arrives.
BlatantCommentWhoring™: What sort of absurd fear-inducing numbers have you seen?
David Pimintel was kind enough to reply to me by e-mail and this is what he had to say:
The difficulty with understanding malnourishment figures is that few studies present the data on how they were measured. For the 1950 data on malnourishment, no information was presented on how malnourishment was measured.
Concerning the current situation getting better, I note that the previous figure of 800 million for protein/calories malnourishment has increased to 850 million.
There are many reasons for the increase in malnourishment. First, per capita cereal grain production has declined and grains make up 80% of the world food. FAO reports that per capita grain production has been CONTINUOUSLY declining for the past 22 years. Supporting this decline in per capita food are the following facts for the past DECADE:
1) Cropland declined 20%.
2) Irrigation declined 10%.
3) Fertilizer use declined 17%.
I hope that these data are of help to you.
I’m still skeptical. All previous Malthusian predictions have proven wrong. The area with the largest increases in food instability have been in sub-Saharan Africa where genocidal campaigns have disrupted the already tenuous food production system.
Please check the comments for some other great remarks.