Hunger is on the rise again after falling steadily during the first half of the 1990s, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) annual hunger report.
"FAO's latest estimates signal a setback in the war against hunger," says The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003 (SOFI 2003). Given the rate at which hunger has declined since 1990 on average, the World Food Summit goal of reducing the number of undernourished people by half by 2015 cannot be reached.
After falling by 37 million during the first half of the 1990s, the number of hungry people in developing countries increased by 18 million in the second half of the decade.
According to Hartwig de Haen, FAO Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social Department, "the goal can only be reached if the recent trend of increasing numbers is reversed. The annual reductions must be accelerated to 26 million per year, more than 12 times the pace of 2.1 million per year achieved during the 1990s."
Each year SOFI assesses the state of hunger in the world and looks at how much progress is being made in reducing hunger. The publication also highlights where countries stand in their battle to defeat hunger and looks at what methods are producing success stories and what problems are preventing success in other regions and countries.
842 million undernourished
Worldwide, FAO estimates that 842 million people were undernourished in 1999-2001, the most recent years for which figures are available. This includes 10 million in industrialized countries, 34 million in countries in transition and 798 million in developing countries.
Regionally, only Latin America and the Caribbean had a decline in the number of hungry since the mid-1990s.
Only 19 countries, including China, succeeded in reducing the number of undernourished throughout the 1990s, says the report. "In these successful countries, the total number of hungry people fell by over 80 million."
At the other end of the scale are 26 countries where the number of undernourished people increased by 60 million during the same period, including countries in transition, where those suffering from hunger climbed from 25 million in the mid-1990s to 34 million at the turn of the century.
Twenty-two countries, including Bangladesh, Haiti and Mozambique, succeeded in turning the tide against hunger. In these countries, "the number of undernourished declined during the second half of the decade after rising through the first five years," the report said. "In 17 other countries, however, the trend shifted in the opposite direction and the number of undernourished people, which had been falling, began to rise. This group includes a number of countries with large populations, among them India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sudan."
According to the report, several countries in Central and West Africa have seen their numbers of hungry people rise due to conflict.
In a number of successful countries, including China, progress slowed after dramatic gains in reducing hunger had been made in the early 1990s. Having reduced chronic undernourishment to moderate or low levels, the report says, "these countries can no longer be expected to propel progress for the developing world."
New insights about hunger
According to Mr. de Haen, "the SOFI project has provided us with many insights about hunger. Through SOFI we are learning more every day about what works to reduce hunger and what causes increased numbers of people to suffer from undernourishment. We are now in a position to make very specific recommendations that countries can follow to alleviate hunger and malnutrition sustainably."
According to the report, preliminary analysis suggests that countries with significantly higher economic and agricultural growth had the most success in reducing hunger. Other factors that contributed to success include lower population growth and higher levels of economic and social development. Those countries with a high prevalence of chronically hungry people are also afflicted by frequent food emergencies and high rates of HIV/AIDS.
In fact, the report says, the southern African food crisis of 2002-2003 showed that "hunger cannot be combated effectively in regions ravaged by AIDS, unless interventions address the particular needs of AIDS-affected households and incorporate measures both to prevent and to mitigate the spread of HIV/AIDS."
Some 60 to 70 percent of farms have suffered labour losses as a result of HIV/AIDS, and lacking the labour, resources and know-how to grow staple and commercial crops, many households are now cultivating survival foods. Others have abandoned their fields entirely.
SOFI 2003 also looks at the impact of water on food security and hunger, calling drought "the single most common cause of severe food shortages in developing countries." Africa stands as a stark example of this, being both the driest continent in the developing world and the continent with the most prevalent hunger.
FAO reports that achieving food security in countries where water is scarce and the environment is fragile may rely on what is known as "virtual water," through the import of food from countries with an abundance of water. For example, FAO calculates that to grow the amount of food imported by Near Eastern countries in 1994 would have taken as much water as the total annual flow of the Nile at Aswan. In such conditions, says FAO, "it may make sense to import food and use limited water resources for other purposes, including growing high value crops for export."
SOFI 2003 also includes a six-page special feature: Trade and food security: the importance of agriculture and agricultural trade in developing countries.
"International trade can have a major impact on reducing hunger and poverty in developing countries," says FAO. "Overall, countries that are more involved in trade tend to enjoy higher rates of economic growth."
Agriculture and agricultural trade play a particularly important role in both the national economies and the food security of developing countries. "Countries where more than 15 percent of the population goes hungry spend more than twice as much of their export earnings to import food as more food-secure countries," according to the report.
"But," says FAO, "their poverty and limited trading activities constrict both their export earnings and their ability to buy more food on international markets."
The report details successful hunger reduction programmes in Brazil, Panama, Kenya and Viet Nam. It also urges the wider adoption and support of the global Anti-Hunger Programme that FAO has proposed recently.
The Anti-Hunger Programme outlines a twin-track approach that advocates a combination of measures that increase the agricultural productivity in poorer rural communities with action to give hungry people immediate access to the food they need.
The FAO-proposed Anti-Hunger Programme sets out priorities and budgets for action in five areas: improving agricultural productivity in poor rural communities; developing and conserving natural resources; expanding rural infrastructure and market access; strengthening capacity for knowledge generation and dissemination; and ensuring access to food for the most needy.
"Ultimately," said Mr. de Haen, "success in reducing hunger will depend on mustering the political will to engage in policy reforms and invest resources where they can do the most good for the poor and hungry.
"That's why," said Mr. de Haen, "FAO has endorsed proposals to build an International Alliance against Hunger. An alliance that would start at sub-national and national levels bringing together governments, civil society organizations, the private sector and concerned individuals to mobilize the political will, technical expertise and financial resources needed to reduce the number of hungry people by at least half by 2015."