Hunger and malnutrition cause tremendous human suffering, kill more than five million children every year, and cost developing countries billions of dollars in lost productivity and national income, according to FAO's annual hunger report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004 (SOFI 2004).
"More than 20 million low birth-weight babies are born in the developing world every year," the report says. These babies faced increased risk of dying in infancy, while those who survive often suffer lifelong physical and cognitive disabilities.
FAO said it was regrettable that so little is done to fight hunger, although the resources needed to effectively prevent this human and economic tragedy are minuscule when compared to the benefits.
The report says that without the direct costs of dealing with the damage caused by hunger, more funds would be available to combat other social problems. "A very rough estimate suggests that these direct costs add up to around $30 billion per year - over five times the amount committed so far to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria."
In addition, there are the indirect costs of lost productivity and income. For example, the report says that tolerating the current levels of child malnutrition will result in productivity and income losses over their lifetimes of between $500 billion to $1 trillion at present value.
Ironically, says the report, the resources needed to deal with the problem of hunger are small in comparison to the potential benefits. Every dollar invested in reducing hunger can yield from five, to over 20 times as much in benefits.
Progress is possible
With the number of hungry people in the world rising to 852 million in the 2000-2002 period, up by 18 million from the mid-1990s, the human and economic costs of hunger will only increase if the trend is not reversed. The total includes 815 million hungry people in the developing countries, 28 million in the countries in transition and 9 million in the industrialized countries.
But although efforts to reduce chronic hunger in developing countries are not currently on track to meet the World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of cutting by half the number of hungry people in the world by 2015, SOFI 2004 says that the goal can still be attained.
"More than 30 countries*, representing nearly half the population of the developing world, provide proof that rapid progress is possible as well as lessons in how that progress can be achieved," the report says. These countries have reduced the percentage of hungry people by at least 25 percent during the 1990s.
In sub-Saharan Africa the proportion of undernourished people in the region "fell from 36 percent, where it had hovered since 1990-1992, to 33 percent.
Hartwig de Haen, FAO's Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social Department, said: "It is possible that the international community has not fully grasped the economic bounce they would get from investments in hunger reduction. Enough is known about how to end hunger and now is the time to capture the momentum toward that goal. It is a matter of political will and prioritization."
Countries urged to adopt twin-track approach
According to SOFI 2004, there is "ample evidence that rapid progress can be made by applying a twin-track strategy that attacks both the causes and the consequences of extreme poverty and hunger. Track one includes interventions to improve food availability and incomes for the poor by enhancing their productive activities. Track two features targeted programmes that give the most needy families direct and immediate access to food."
To meet their commitments to the World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals, SOFI 2004 recommends that countries adopt large-scale programmes to promote primarily agriculture and rural development on which the majority of the poor and hungry depend for their livelihoods. Priority should also be given to actions that will have an immediate impact on the food security of millions of vulnerable people, says the report.
This year's SOFI also contains a special feature on Globalization, urbanization and changing food systems in developing countries. The feature looks at the effects of rapid urbanization and globalization on food systems. It focuses on the spread of large retail chains, such as supermarkets and hypermarkets, in developing countries and examines the impact they are having on small farmers.
FAO says this new commercial phenomenon poses serious challenges for policy-makers in developing countries who are trying to develop rural areas and improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers. FAO recommends developing policies and programmes that will help small farmers seize opportunities offered the new dynamic markets.
The report also addresses urbanization, the increase of hunger in urban areas, and dietary changes associated with rapid urbanization, including an increase in non-communicable diet-related diseases. "Many developing countries now face a double challenge - widespread hunger on one hand and rapid increases in diabetes and cardiovascular diseases," the report warns.
*The countries that reduced the percentage of hungry people by at least 25 percent are:
Angola, Benin, Brazil, Chad, Chile, China, Republic of Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guyana, Ecuador, Haiti, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kuwait, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nigeria, Peru, Syria, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and Viet Nam.