Miller Research: Hungry for Answers
[Reprinted from Perspectives Fall 2011]
Back in the 1990s, the World Food Summit set a goal of cutting in the half the number of hungry people in the world by 2015. Since then, the number of hungry people has soared from 824 million in the 1990-1992 period to more than one billion today, according to World Bank data. With the Summit's deadline just three years away, the problem seems to be getting worse.
There are many reasons why the number of hungry would be on the upswing. But a new study raises an intriguing possibility—perhaps the methodology for counting them doesn't always accurately measure who's hungry and who's not. The study was conducted by Nolan Miller, professor of finance and a faculty associate in the College's Center for Business and Public Policy, and Robert Jensen, associate professor of public policy at UCLA's School of Public Affairs.
The World Bank deems someone hungry if they get less than 2,100 calories a day. By that definition, one in seven people on the planet is hungry. But Miller and Jensen propose a second test—do people act like they are hungry? They tested their theory in China, and when they got done they found that acute hunger in China was becoming less, not more, of a problem. That's about what you would expect, given China's meteoric economic growth. But by contrast, other measures say China's hunger problem is getting worse.
A Measured Response
By any system, hunger is hard to measure. An elderly woman may not be getting the allotted 2,100 calories a day— but then again, she probably doesn't need that many. On the other hand, "A laborer may be eating a lot of calories, but not meeting his needs," says Miller.
One common-sense way to test
whether someone is getting enough food
is to look at what they eat. If they have
enough money to buy meat, they're
probably not hungry. If they were hungry,
according to Miller and Jensen's theory, they would take the money they're spending on meat and buy more staples such as rice. "When you get hungry, you start to veer toward the staples because they provide you with more calories at a lower cost," says Miller.
Their findings are contained in a
working paper, which is awaiting peer
review required for publication. But the
working paper has already received
substantial attention in The Economist and
elsewhere. Miller and Jensen also outlined their findings in an op-ed piece for The New York Times.
The researchers want to provide
another hunger measurement tool so that
policymakers can better target the limited
funds available to ameliorate hunger. "We're just trying to improve the way
hunger is measured and understood," says Miller. "We call people hungry if they act like they're hungry."
Grains of Truth
The starting point for their research
was Asia. "If you look at China and India,
where incomes are going up, people should
be better off," Miller says. Yet according to
the standard measurement, hunger is
increasing at the same time income is
increasing. But when Miller and Jensen used
their system, they found that people were
indeed better off. "They haven't necessarily
increased their calories," says Miller. But they were able to diversify their diet, and eat less rice. That meant they were better nourished.
To test their theory, they spent months in China recording what individuals in 1,300 very poor households ate. "We asked them to tell us everything they had eaten for a 24-hour period, and we collected data three times from each family." All the families were picked from Chinese welfare lists. While there were some variations in income, all were living below the World Bank's extreme poverty line. The researchers combined their findings with a broader set of data from the University of North Carolina to draw conclusions for the country as a whole.
They found that when people were extremely strapped for cash, they would, out of economic necessity, get 80 percent or more of their calories from rice. That was the cheapest way to get the calories they needed and meet their other nutritional requirements "whether you're talking about the construction worker or the elderly lady," Miller says. But when their income went above 250 yuan per person per month (about $1 a day), they would diversify their diet and get fewer than 80 percent of their calories from rice.
The researchers also gave rice-subsidy coupons to some of the families. They did this to see what would happen if they artificially boosted family incomes by freeing up rice money to spend on other things. "When we did that, we found they spent more money on seafood. But they didn't buy more food—they diversified their calories." They also spent more on communications, possibly buying prepaid cell phones to call their friends and families.
Food for Thought
From the coupon experiment, the
researchers concluded that either people
didn't need additional calories, or they
needed additional calories and didn't
know it. "If you think giving people more
money will solve hunger, their behavior indicates otherwise," says Miller. "It may be that you need to complement cash aid with nutrition education."
While their work raises questions about the existing yardstick for measuring hunger, the researchers are not suggesting that it should be scrapped. "We're not proposing our measure as an alternative to the existing system," says Miller. "But it could be used alongside the standard measure. So far, we've started to get more attention for our work, but I don't know if it's made it to the policymakers' radar screens yet."
The Nutrition Addition
The planet now produces 17 percent more food per person than it did 30 years ago, so in theory there's plenty of food for everyone.
"There's not a global food shortage," says Kathy Baylis, assistant professor of agricultural and consumer economics and a faculty associate in the College's Center for Business and Public Policy. "But there is a problem supplying food that people want to eat at a price they can pay."
So what's the best way to get hungry people
fed? Should we be providing food, money, jobs,
nutrition education, or other resources? While
there may not be one sure-fire answer, Baylis
believes that one thing that often doesn't work is trying to give them food. "Usually the answer is not sending in bags of food, which is our first instinct," she says. "It might get stolen. Or it might depress local crop production by destroying the market for food. In that case, you would be depressing rural incomes, which perpetuates the problem. It's better to send in money. If they
had money, they could buy food locally, which would stimulate the local economy."
Nolan Miller, professor of finance, isn't so sure that
money alone is the answer. The buying behavior of those in
his rice-subsidy coupon experiment (see main story)
demonstrated that extra money didn't mean it was used to
purchase more food. He believes that one answer to
addressing hunger could lie in a combination of cash aid and
Once basic calorie requirements are met, many people face a secondary problem. "It's possible to have enough food so that you are not hungry, but you could still be malnourished," says Juan Andrade, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition. "You can satisfy the caloric requirements with staples. But those staples might not contain crucial micronutrients, such as iron and Vitamin A, unless national laws require that they be added. If you look at hunger only from the point of view of providing calories, you're not solving the problem."
Malnutrition is a complex problem tied to income, regional diets, and food preferences. It's possible to live within your means and be well nourished, or rich and malnourished. Undernutrition occurs even in affluent countries.
"If low-income groups are trying to fulfill their needs with cheap, calorie-dense foods, they may have an issue with micronutrient intake," Andrade says. "You can easily satisfy most micronutrient needs indulging on fruits and vegetables. But there are two reasons why they don't, price and flavor. You can get vitamin A and vitamin C from a mango, but it costs $1 to $1.50. And $1.50 can buy something that is more fulfilling or appealing to some people, like a bag of corn chips—and the corn chips provide more calories."
It's possible to be cash strapped yet well nourished if you live in the right place, such as the biodiverse-rich rain forests of South America. Indigenous peoples there survive off the forests during times of hardship. "In the Amazon basin, people get their calories from nuts or roots or whatever the area provides," says Andrade.
But as a rule, poverty limits food choices, while affluence tends to increase them. "In developing countries, you have to buy food to survive," says Andrade. "People probably buy staples traditional to their country's culture and agriculture. They probably buy the same food (consistently) and spend almost all their income to get it."
Why Are So Many People Hungry?
The world produces more than enough food to feed everyone,yet nearly
one billion people are hungry.The World Hunger Education Service
identifies five hard-to-solve problems that lead to hunger around the world.
Here's a breakdown:
1. Poverty leaves many people with too little income to buy enough food. Some 1.3 billion people in developing countries live on $1.25 a day or less.
2. Inequitable economic systems concentrate resources and money in the hands of a minority who live well, leaving those at the bottom scarcely able to survive.
3. Hunger perpetuates hunger, because people who don't get enough to eat suffer from poor health, low energy levels, and mental impairment, which in turn curtail their ability to work.
4. Wars create large numbers of refugees who often can't get enough food.
5. Climate change is disrupting agriculture by increasing drought and flooding and by altering climate patterns in ways that require farmers to change crops and farming practices.
Source: Hunger and Poverty Facts for 2011 – A fact sheet from the World Hunger Education Service.