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UN says 925 million people undernourished

For the first time in 15 years, the number of hungry people in the world has declined. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 925 million people are undernourished -- a significant improvement from the 1.023 billion hungry the organisation counted in 2009

The economic downturn and international food price increases of 2008 caused a staggering jump in the number of undernourished people around the world: in 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for the first time counted more than 1 billion hungry people without access to enough food. That number set off alarm bells that the planet was in the midst of a deepening food crisis.

This year’s marked decrease to 925 million returns hunger trends to pre-2009 levels. Driving the decrease was a sharp decline in international and domestic food prices, which had jumped in 2008. But, while the decline is a good sign, global hunger experts say there is no cause to celebrate. The number of hungry people is still “unacceptably high,” the United Nations warns, and the latest figures don’t reflect the repercussions from the massive flooding in Pakistan.

The Rome-based FAO has further said the figures for 2010 do not include the millions of hungry people in three “emergency” areas: Pakistan, Haiti, and the Sahel in Africa. Pakistan, ravaged by both drought and flood, is particularly grim, with more than 10 million people “in urgent need of assistance,” said Josette Sheerhan, executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme. An area the size of Italy has been inundated with water, just ahead of the harvest season, depriving farmers of food, seeds, income and electrical power.

“For a while there, people were really hit with high food prices,” said David Dawe, an economist with the FAO’s Economic and Social Development Department. “We knew the big increase last year (in 2009) was largely due to a lack of access to food due to the economic crisis and some delay in world food prices coming down in domestic markets.”

Helping matters were strong global cereal harvests during the past several years, meaning food supply is adequate even though 2010 yields are forecast to be lower. Also, income levels are generally growing faster in emerging economies such as India and China than those in developed countries, according to the World Bank.

That growth likely accounts for the fact that Asia posted the biggest improvement over last year, by reducing by 80 million the number of hungry people in the region. However, the region still has the highest number of undernourished people in the world: 578 million.

In 2000, as part of the Millennium Summit, world leaders pledged to reduce the proportion of hungry people in developing countries from 20% in early-1990s to 10% by 2015.

But doubts are privately growing within the UN food agencies about substantial further progress toward the goal, which world leaders will discuss at a review summit next week in New York. Sheerhan said it will be “extremely difficult to achieve” given that the latest figures suggest a 16% hunger rate, meaning only four percentage points worth of progress has been made during the past decade.

According to the FAO, the bulk of malnourished people (98%) remain concentrated in developing countries. Two-thirds of those are concentrated in just seven countries: Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan. More than 40% live in China and India alone.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the highest prevalence of hunger, with 30% of the population undernourished.

Source: Reuters, September 15, 2010
           Associated Press, September 15, 2010
           http://www.theglobeandmail.com, September 2010