ROME, ITALY — A new, faster and more precise way of measuring hunger and food insecurity across the world is soon to be field-tested by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in several pilot countries, the FAO said on March 12.

The new approach relies on gathering information on the extent and severity of hunger from food-insecure people, through a carefully-designed annual survey to be conducted in collaboration with polling specialists Gallup, Inc.

Starting this month, the new approach — known as the Voices of the Hungry project — will be finalized in collaboration with major experts in the field and tested on a pilot basis in four countries: Angola, Ethiopia, Malawi and Niger. These countries have agreed to move toward the complete eradication of hunger, in line with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's Zero Hunger challenge.

The plan is to then extend the survey to more than 160,000 respondents in up to 150 countries covered by the Gallup World Poll and to publish updated results on each country every year. The project will run for five years and will lead to the establishment of a new FAO-certified standard for food security monitoring that could then be easily adopted by other household surveys.

“This innovative method will be an essential tool for governments, civil society and other national and international organizations in the fight against hunger,” said Jomo Sundaram, FAO assistant director-general for economic and social development. "It will also be key to increasing the accountability of governments and in encouraging them to commit to hunger eradication.”

Despite recent improvements, the methodology currently used by FAO is not able to provide a comprehensive picture of the many dimensions of hunger. At the moment, FAO is able to accurately monitor food availability at the national level, particularly in terms of potential energy intake, whereas the new indicator will measure food access at the individual level, and will provide a clearer idea of personal experiences with food insecurity.

The new approach will complement FAO's existing indicator on the percentage of undernourished in the population, which was developed to monitor progress towards the first Millennium Development Goal of halving the prevalence of hunger by 2015. This is a much needed addition, since it provides information on a range of aspects that characterize the experience of food insecurity, rather than only caloric consumption.

Under the Voices of the Hungry project, nationally representative samples of 1,000 to 5,000 people, depending on the size of the country, will be selected to answer eight questions designed to reveal whether and how respondents have experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months.

The questions are:

During the last 12 months, was there a time when, because of lack of money or other resources:

1.    You were worried you would run out of food?
2.    You were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food?
3.    You ate only a few kinds of foods?
4.    You had to skip a meal?
5.    You ate less than you thought you should?
6.    Your household ran out of food?
7.    You were hungry but did not eat?
8.    You went without eating for a whole day?

The questions are phrased in such a way as to establish the respondents' position on a Food Insecurity Experience Scale which differentiates between mild, moderate and severe food insecurity. Similar questionnaires and Food Insecurity Scales have been used by the U.S. Government to identify food stamp beneficiaries and by Brazil in targeting its Bolsa Familia social welfare program.

"This is an exciting new initiative for FAO because it will enable us to better understand the severity of food insecurity in a cost-effective and timely way," said Carlo Cafiero, the FAO statistician in charge of the project. "It will also provide FAO with an affordable and methodologically consistent tool for monitoring hunger worldwide."

Results of the surveys will be available in days rather than years, allowing FAO to take an almost real-time snapshot of a nation's food insecurity situation. This will be the first occasion that FAO takes on responsibility for data collection. In parallel, FAO will assist countries to include the Scale in their ongoing survey plans and programs to ensure future sustainability.

FAO is currently holding discussions with potential resource partners in order to mobilize funds for the overall Voices of the Hungry project, while the four-country pilot project will be financed by a separate initiative.