How many people starve to death every year?

Too many, of course. We would all prefer that the number be zero, certainly.

But what is the correct number?

Like many facts, it is hard to pin down. Yes, it changes a little from year to year. More significantly, we must first figure out what we mean by starve to death. And not confuse it with broader concepts like die from hunger.

Here’s why. If we want to look at the number of people, worldwide, who die from hunger we will be looking at a very big number indeed. Chronic hunger weakens people. They may then go on to die from all manner of diseases that might otherwise not have killed them had they had proper nutrition. So the number would be very large, and highly speculative. We don’t know for sure that any individual who, say, dies of measles did so because hunger was a major factor. But we can reasonably assume that hunger is a major factor in many measles deaths. But how many deaths? Though our speculation on this matter might be defensible, and possibly quite accurate, it will be speculation nonetheless.

And doesn’t starving to death mean something else? If I were to say that an individual starved to death it would only be an accurate statement if hunger was what directly killed that person. If someone were so hungry that they, say, wandered off a 200 foot cliff, I might note that hunger was a factor in their death, but I wouldn’t say that person starved to death.

So, how many deaths, worldwide, are immediately attributable to starvation?

Less than you might think, according to data from the World Health Organization.

In 2012, according to the WHO, about 1.1 million people worldwide died from either “nutritional deficiencies” or “protein-energy malnutrition.” Those two categories combined sound like starvation.

Is this a surprisingly low number? Yes, if you take seriously statements like

Every 3.6 seconds one person dies of starvation.

(FYI – that works out to 8,760,000 starvation deaths per year.)

That seems high, but this statement is rather well accepted, just look herehere, and here.

The figure comes from UNICEF, a program of the United Nations. 8,760,000 starvation deaths per year. Not ‘deaths attributable to malnutrition,’ or ‘where hunger is a factor’. But 8,760,000 people per year dying of “starvation.”

How do we square that with the data from the WHO (which – like UNICEF – is a program of the United Nations)?

Is UNICEF just guilty of poor word choice? Did they mean there are something like 8.76 million deaths worldwide per year in which hunger is a factor? Could be. But they said “starvation.” It is such a specific word.

Anyway, I would refrain from using the 8.76 million number, or the “every 3.6 seconds…” metric, unless some data can be found to show what UNICEF meant to say.

As it stands, over a million people die every year from hunger, which is a tragedy requiring no exaggeration.

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