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DEVELOPMENT: 40 Million More Go Hungry

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Dec 9 2008 (IPS) - Rising prices have plunged an additional 40 million people below the hunger threshold this year, a new FAO report says.

Jacques Diouf Credit: Giulio Napolitano/FAO

Jacques Diouf Credit: Giulio Napolitano/FAO

The number of undernourished people worldwide has raised to 963 million, compared to 923 million in 2007, says the annual report on world food insecurity released Tuesday by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The number of undernourished people represents an increase of more than 80 million since the 1990-92 base period. And yet more are likely to be tipped into hunger and poverty as a consequence of the financial crisis, the report says.

A sharp increase in food prices is responsible for reversing the previously positive trend towards reducing by half the proportion of people suffering from hunger worldwide by 2015, according to the Rome-based food agency. “As a result of rising food prices that started in 2006, 75 million people were pushed into chronic hunger,” FAO director-general Jacques Diouf told a news conference. “This trend has continued, dragging an additional 40 million into hunger this year.”

The price of major cereals has fallen by more than 50 percent from the peak recorded in June, but still remains high compared to previous years. “The decline in international food prices should not detract attention from the need to increase agricultural productivity,” Diouf said. “Un-replenished food stocks, volatility of food prices, and the evolving financial and economic crisis continue to threaten food security, and food prices in local markets are still at unprecedented levels.”

The difficult situation means a challenge ahead. “To meet these challenges without major pressures on food prices, cereal yields in developing countries will need to increase by 40 percent, irrigation water requirements will rise by up to 50 percent and some 100-200 million hectares of additional land may be needed,” FAO economist Kostas Stamoulis told IPS.

Several experts have suggested that high food prices may present opportunities for agriculture. But most developing countries have not taken advantage of this. “With seeds and fertilizer prices more than doubling since 2006, poor farmers could not increase production, while richer farmers in developed countries could afford the higher input costs and expand plantings,” Stamoulis said. As a result, cereal production in developed countries is likely to rise by at least 10 percent this year. The increase in developing countries may not exceed even one percent.

Diouf urged the international community at a food summit in Rome earlier this year to increase investment in poor countries by at least 30 billion dollars a year to assist farmers facing shortages and price rise.

Two-thirds of the difficulties are spread across seven countries – India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia. Progress in these countries with large populations would have an important impact on reduction of global hunger. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s hungry live in Asia (583 million in 2007).

In sub-Saharan Africa, one in three people – or 236 million (2007) – are chronically hungry, the highest proportion of undernourished people in a region, the report says. Most of the increase in the number of the hungry came in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where persistent conflicts contributed to taking the proportion of undernourished people from 29 percent to 76 percent.

Sub-Saharan Africa has made some progress in reducing the proportion of people suffering from chronic hunger from 34 percent (1995-97) to 30 percent (2003-2005). Ghana, Congo, Nigeria, Mozambique and Malawi have achieved the sharpest reduction in the proportion of undernourished. Ghana is the only country that has reached both the hunger reduction target of the World Food Summit and of the Millennium Development Goals.

Latin America and the Caribbean were the most successful in reducing hunger before the surge in food prices. High food prices increased the number of hungry people in the sub-region to 51 million in 2007.

Developing countries in the Near East and North Africa generally experience the lowest levels of under-nourishment in the world, the report says. But conflicts (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and high food prices pushed the numbers up from 15 million in 1990-92 to 37 million in 2007.

A twin-track approach is required to fight their impact on hunger, Diouf said. This means “measures to enable the agriculture sector to respond to the high prices, and targeted safety nets and social protection programmes for the most food-insecure and vulnerable.” (EU/WD/DV/IP/IF/HD/CF/AG/HU/MD/SZ/SS/08)

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