World

Undernourished surpass 1 billion: UN

The ranks of the world's hungry has surpassed one billion, and declining aid and investment in agriculture are expected to steadily increase the number of undernourished people for more than a decade, according to a UN food agency report.

Decline in aid, agriculture investment blamed on growing numbers

A woman works in a paddy near Pelling in the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim. ((Tim Chong/Reuters))

The ranks of the world's hungry has surpassed one billion, and declining aid and investment in agriculture are expected to steadily increase the number of undernourished people for more than a decade, according to a United Nations food agency report.

Unless these trends are reversed, ambitious goals set by the international community to slash the number of hungry people by 2015 will not be met, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned in its annual State of Food Insecurity report, which was released on Wednesday.

Food and Agriculture Organization director general Jacques Diouf speaks at the organization's headquarters in Rome. ((Pier Paolo Cito/Associated Press))

After gains in the fight against hunger in the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of undernourished people started climbing in 1995, reaching 1.02 billion this year under the combined effect of high food prices and the global financial meltdown, the agency said. The figure topped the one billion mark in June, and was 963 million a year ago.

The blame for the long-term trend rests largely on the reduced share of aid and private investments earmarked for agriculture over recent years, the Rome-based agency said.

"In the fight against hunger the focus should be on increasing food production," FAO director general Jacques Diouf said. "It's common sense … that agriculture would be given the priority, but the opposite has happened."

In 1980, 17 per cent of aid contributed by donor countries went to agriculture. That share was down to 3.8 per cent in 2006 and only slightly improved in the last three years, Diouf said.

Soaring prices

Economists said the decline may have been caused by low food prices that discouraged investment in agriculture and competition for funds from other aid fields including emergency relief, debt reduction and population control.

Hunger terms

Undernutrition

Results from prolonged low levels of food intake and/or low absorption of food consumed. May also relate to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Undernourishment or chronic hunger

Status of people who regularly consume less than their minimum energy requirements. The average person requires a minimum of about 1,800 kcal per day.

Malnutrition

A range of conditions that hinder good health, caused by inadequate or unbalanced food intake or from poor absorption of food consumed. It refers to both undernutrition (food deprivation) and overnutrition (excessive food intake in relation to energy requirements).

Food security

A country's population has both physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

Food insecurity

A country's population does not have access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food and therefore, is not consuming enough for an active and healthy life. This can be caused by the unavailability of food, insufficient purchasing power or inappropriate utilization of resources at the household level.

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Against the backdrop of this trend, the world's hungry were hit with a double blow recently. First, soaring prices for food staples in 2007 and 2008 forced poor families to sell their meagre assets and cut down on meals, health and education spending.

Although the inflated prices — which caused riots across the globe last year — have stabilized, they remain comparatively high, especially in the developing world, Diouf said.

In the meantime, the world economic crisis is increasing unemployment, reducing remittances that immigrants send back home and making it difficult for poor countries to get credit lines to buy food on the market, Diouf said.

Thirty countries now require emergency food assistance, including 20 in Africa. FAO announced in June that the number of hungry people had reached one billion, or one in six of the world's population. The world's most populous region, Asia and the Pacific, has the largest number of hungry people — 642 million — followed by Sub-Saharan Africa with 265 million.

"The current crisis is historically unprecedented" said the new report. "With developing countries today more financially and commercially integrated into the world economy than they were 20 years ago, they are far more exposed to shocks in international markets."

Investment needed

Diouf said world leaders are starting to understand that investment in agriculture must be increased. He cited the goal set by July's Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, to raise $20 billion to help farmers in poor countries produce more — a shift from previous emphasis on delivering food aid.

However, more investments will be needed to fulfil pledges like the UN Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve of the number of those living in hunger and poverty by 2015, the report said.

FAO, which will host a world food summit next month, says global food output will have to increase by 70 per cent to feed a projected population of 9.1 billion in 2050.

To achieve that, poor countries will need $44 billion yearly of aid to agriculture, compared with the current $7.9 billion, to increase access to irrigation systems and modern machinery, as well as to build roads and train farmers.

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