A critical view of SOFI 2017

FIAN International assessment on the State of Food Security and Nutrition (SOFI) 2017

With an increase of the number of hungry and four countries suffering from famine, we are clearly not on our way to ending hunger, as ambitiously put forward by UN Members States in the 2030 Agenda. With this year’s revised format of SOFI, the introduction of important indicators such as stunting, overweight and Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) are welcome as a way to present a more comprehensive picture of the state of affairs. However, the report fails to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition, including the dominant models of production and the contested role of corporations in shaping eating habits.

The current state of global hunger is not a new phenomenon. As echoed by this year’s Right to Food and Nutrition Watch “The World Food Crisis: The Way Out”, the crises are not instantaneous, but rather multidimensional, and emerge as a result of long-standing discrimination and structural inequalities at political, economic and social levels. The 2007/2008 crisis that shook the entire world never really went away and persists in 2017, as evidenced by the prevalence of severe food insecurity as well as underreported challenges millions face to realize their right to food.

New and old indicators

Additional indicators that measure world’s food security in the report join the list, including the three SDG indicators of child malnutrition: stunting, wasting and overweight. Unfortunately, they do not carry enough weight in the report analysis, nor are they much integrated into the communication of the results. While important links between these and key areas like education and health services are made, there is a need for a closer look to the obstacles (i.e. dominant patriarchal systems) in accessing  food, as well as natural resources for its production.

FIES has also been an important addition this year. Based on direct interviews with adult individuals to measure the ability of their families to access food, FIES has achieved a better assessment, as it also addresses anxiety over food insecurity and habits at individual and household level. Yet, the report tends to feature severe food insecurity only, despite the fact that SDG 2 indicator also seeks to monitor moderate food insecurity, which is a reality faced by communities the world over, from the south to the north. 

Most monitoring systems of food insecurity are largely based on quantitative measuring of calories intake, income or food related expenditures, agricultural production inter alia focusing on outcomes at the individual and household level. This includes the benchmark indicator Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU), which is still being used as the central determinant of global hunger within the SOFI Report. PoU fails to count the full picture of those suffering from hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, and does not interact with the root causes of hunger.

Overlooking the “business footprint”

The report argues that the increasing number of conflicts and climate-shocks are mostly behind rising levels of hunger and malnutrition, together with growing rates of unemployment and the deterioration of social protection nets. Yet, it fails to address the increasing influence of corporations at all levels, including in food production and consumption habits. 

Such an oversight can be illustrated with the analysis of the overweight indicator. Although a key addition to the report, as a type of malnutrition, there is insufficient emphasis on the root causes that trigger it, beyond eating habits. Being overweight comes as a result of changing habits induced by poverty, however SOFI fails to address the political economy of industrialized food systems, the grabbing of natural resources, the influence of corporations through marketing campaigns and policy processes.  

A similar conclusion can be drawn with the analysis of the new indicator ‘exclusive breastfeeding for children under 6 months’. Although its inclusion is widely welcomed, the report fails to outline the corporate capture of markets and publicity as obstacles to breastfeeding, as a fundamental component to achieving the right to food and the rights of women.

Need for real human rights-based monitoring systems

Even with a revised methodology, SOFI does not address issues of discrimination linked to class, gender and race/ethnicity, disenfranchisement, patterns of ownership and access to land, labor and capital and more qualitative assessments of wellbeing and human capabilities. Those affected by food insecurity and malnutrition tend to be mere objects to be monitored instead of subjects who should have a say in defining what should be monitored and how. As it stands now, neither SOFI nor the SDGs have developed an indicator measuring the degree of land concentration or the pollution of water resources, which are fundamental elements preventing the realization of the right to food.

Human rights instruments are increasingly being utilized by social movements not only to defend their members from major abuses and human rights violations but also to develop public policies and laws which allow for structural conditions to exercise social rights. This is why a human rights-based monitoring within policy spaces, particularly the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) innovative monitoring mechanism, are fundamental to give voice those communities most disproportionally affected by hunger, and to fully address the structural inequalities behind the data

To truly have a complete overview of the state of hunger, including its root causes, UN agencies publishing SOFI should create a space for political dialogue, where the people behind the data become visible. 


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