ROME (Reuters) - The number of hungry people in the world has topped one billion this year for the first time since records started in 1970, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The U.N. agency is hosting a world food summit in Rome on November 16-18, hoping to win broad support on the need to invest more money in agricultural development to help poor countries feed themselves.
Following are some questions and answers on why so many people still go hungry and what can be done about it.
Yes. FAO estimates that cereal production this year will be the second largest ever, just two percent below 2008 which was a record year.
The number of hungry people rose by roughly 100 million in 2009, due to the combined effect of the global financial crisis and a spike in the price of basic food commodities like wheat and rice in 2007-08.
The food price rises were due to multiple factors — including droughts, high energy prices and market speculation — and sparked riots, trade restrictions and hoarding. It also led richer food importers to buy farmland abroad, in an attempt to secure future food supplies.
Although they have fallen back since, at a domestic level food prices remain high. Average prices in May this year were about 24 percent higher than they were in 2006.
The financial crisis compounded this by reducing aid flows, foreign investments and global remittances that migrant workers send back home to help their families.
No. Even before the double whammy of the financial crisis and food price rises, the number of hungry people was steadily going up — reversing gains made in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some 915 million people were suffering from hunger in 2008, up from 848 million in 2003-05 and 842 million in 1990-1992.
The number of malnourished as a percentage of the developing world’s population has also started to rise again: after falling from 20 percent in 1990-92 to just under 16 percent in 2003-05, it now stands at almost 18 percent.
A long-running decline in agricultural investment is the main culprit, says FAO. The proportion of official aid to developing countries that is being devoted to agricultural development has fallen from 17 percent in 1980 to 3.8 percent in 2006 and now stands at about 5 percent.
Group of Eight countries in July pledged $20 billion to help poor countries feed themselves over the next three years, but diplomatic sources say only about $3 billion of that money is new. FAO says $44 billion should be spent annually to boost agriculture in developing countries.
Anti-poverty campaigners say that globalization and unfair trade rules have dealt a huge blow to poorer nations, which have been forced over the past few decades to abolish supports to small farmers and open their markets to cheap imports.
As a result the African continent, which in the 1960s was not only self-sufficient in food production but also a major exporter, now imports 25 percent of its food.
Another factor is climate change, with FAO estimating that developing countries may experience a decline in overall agricultural productivity of between 9 and 21 percent as a result of global warming.
Finally, the increased use of food crops for biofuels also threatens food security. The production of liquid biofuels based on agricultural commodities like maize, sugar, oil seeds and palm oil increased more than threefold between 2000 and 2008.
One study estimated the rapid expansion of biofuels to 2050 could boost the number of undernourished pre-school children in Africa and Asia by 3 million and 1.7 million respectively.