June 19, 2009

One-Sixth Of World Population Undernourished: U.N.

The global economic slowdown combined with high food prices is causing one in six of the world's population, more than one billion people, to go hungry, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said Friday.

Compared with last year, there are 100 million more people consuming less than 1,800 calories a day, said U.N. officials presenting the report in Rome.

Nearly all the world's hungry live in developing nations, where food prices have fallen more slowly than in wealthy countries.  The poor nations require additional aid and agricultural investment as a result, the U.N. agency reported.

"The silent hunger crisis, affecting one-sixth of all of humanity, poses a serious risk for world peace and security," the agency's Director-General Jacques Diouf told the Associated Press.

The U.N. emphasized the link between hunger and peace, pointing to surging prices for food staples such as rice that caused riots last year in the developing world.

"Food security is one of our most critical peace and security issues of our time," Josette Sheeran of the World Food Program told the AP.

The World Food Program is a separate U.N. food agency based in Rome.

"A hungry world is a dangerous world," she said.

Despite robust cereal production in 2009 and a slight decline in food prices from peak levels in mid-2008, hunger nevertheless increased. Indeed, average food prices at the end of 2008 were still 24 percent higher in real terms than in 2006, the FAO said.

The global economic crisis has aggravated the problem for those enduring pay reductions or job losses.  Nations have also lost flexibility in managing fluctuations in food prices since the slowdown has caused tools such as currency devaluation to become less effective.

The urban poor would be most vulnerable to declining foreign investments and plunging demand for exports, with millions likely to return to the countryside, putting pressure on rural areas and resources, the report said.

There are now 1.02 billion hungry people worldwide, an 11 percent jump from last year's 915 million, said the FAO, which based its estimate on an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Asia and the Pacific now have 642 million hungry, the largest portion of the world's hungry. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest hunger rate, with 265 million undernourished, roughly 32 percent of the area's total population. But undernourishment is also a growing concern in developed countries, with some 15 million now hungry, the FAO said.

The problem also has an impact on the quality of nutrition, as people turn to lower-cost foods such as grains, which are high in calories but contain less protein than meat or dairy products.

Diouf said there was an urgent need for governments to establish social protection programs to improve food access for the needy.
Small farmers should be assisted with tools, seeds and fertilizers, he said. Acknowledging that world hunger had been on the rise before the current economic slowdown, Diouf also called for structural, long-term changes, such as increasing production in low-income countries.


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