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Using data from national household surveys could lead to a more accurate identification of malnourished people and more effective action to achieve the Millennium Development Goal on hunger, according to a Malian scientist.

Although low income is a major cause of undernourishment, it may not reveal the full picture, according to Ibrahima Bocoum, an economics lecturer at the University of Montpellier, in France.

Bocoum's research in Mali — published by the French International Cooperation Centre for Agronomic Research (CIRAD) in March — found that many of the poorest households may have enough food, while those above the poverty line may not.

He found that 14 per cent of rural and 25 per cent of urban households were below the poverty line but were taking in enough calories, while 18 per cent of rural and 15 per cent of urban households were above the poverty line but were calorie deficient.

Bocoum told SciDev.Net that the paradox can be explained by factors such as family size, social rank, and the diversity of food consumed.

For example, he said, "the wealthiest 20 per cent of urban households buy less cereals and more meat than the poorest 20 per cent". Because cereals contain more calories than meat, wealthier urban families may be eating  fewer calories than the poorest ones.

The reserach also suggested that families above the poverty line might also experience calorie deficits if their spending on health and transport was high.

Using such detailed information from household surveys could be a simple way to identify undernourished and vulnerable populations with greater accuracy, and target interventions, according to Bocoum.

Mary Diallo, coordinator of the early alert system run by Mali's commission for food, welcomed the study.

Diallo said that, following poor rains, crop yields were low in Mali this year.

"The prices of sorghum and millet are very high. Consequently 1.7 million people could suffer from hunger this year."

She added that the situation is worsened by military and political unrest in the north of the country, which is occupied by Tuareg separatist rebels and has displaced approximately 200,000 people.

Alice Martin Dahirou, resident representative of the World Food Programme in Mali, said the organisation is considering setting up an emergency operation this year in order to support the most vulnerable people.

But the worst may be yet to come in the Sahel region, according to the Famine Early Warning Network's (FEWS NET) latest alert for the region (27 March).

It expects the current food security crisis to peak between July and September. In northern Mali, the conflict and lack of humanitarian aid will mean the food insecurity problems will be "considerably more severe and more widespread than predicted in February/March of this year", it said.