December 9, 2008 / 8:13 PM / 10 years ago

Nearly 1 billion people hungry

ROME (Reuters) - High food prices helped push another 40 million people into hunger this year, the U.N.’s food agency said on Tuesday, raising the number of undernourished people in the world to 963 million.

Severely malnourished Sadiki Basilaki, 9, receives a mug of milk at a catholic mission feeding center in Rutshuru, 70kms (50 miles) north of Goma in eastern Congo November 13, 2008. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that said fewer and fewer people can afford decent meals, especially in Asia and Africa, despite a fall in food prices, gave a hollow ring to pledges to cut world poverty.

“High food prices have had a devastating effect on the most vulnerable and insecure part of the world’s population,” Kostas Stamoulis, head of FAO’s agricultural and development economics division, told a news conference presenting the report.

He said unreplenished food stocks, price volatility and the global financial crisis continue to hurt food security, while food prices on domestic markets remain at record high levels.

The cost of food staples began rocketing in 2006 because of a spike in commodity prices, and reached a peak in June 2008.

While the global economic downturn has pushed prices of food items down since then, the FAO’s food price index was still 28 percent higher in October than two years earlier.

But even before the food price surge and this year’s financial turmoil, the number of hungry people kept rising steadily, despite a U.N. Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of the world’s undernourished people by 2015.

Some 923 million people were suffering from hunger in 2007, up from 848 million in 2003-05 and 842 million in 1990-1992.

FAO preliminary estimates are that 14 percent of the world’s population was undernourished this year, up from 12.9 percent in 2003-05 and only slightly lower than 15.8 percent in 1990-92.

EMPTY PROMISES

The head of FAO, Jacques Diouf, has been sounding alarm bells for years about the lack of progress in the fight against hunger.

“In 2006, I said that at this rate we would achieve the Millennium Goal not by 2015, but by 2150,” he said on Tuesday.

The vast majority — 907 million people — of the world’s hungry live in developing nations. Of these, 65 percent live in just seven 7 countries: India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

In June, Diouf hosted a global food summit and said $30 billion a year were needed to boost farm output in developing countries. He said that represented just 8 percent of what more developed nations spent to support their agriculture sectors.

That conference produced no firm political commitments or policy changes, and since then the world’s richest countries have poured hundreds of billions into their economies to fight a fast-spreading international recession.

Diouf acknowledged that the goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 looked increasingly difficult to achieve, also because the global economic slump is cutting aid flows to poor countries, but he refused to throw in the towel.

Calling the situation “morally unacceptable,” he said he had asked U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to take the lead in the fight against hunger and hold a food summit next year.

“Obama started his campaign with the simple words ‘Yes, We Can’, and I hope that will help us make it happen. I say ‘Yes, We Can’ but only if everybody plays their role.”

(additional reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova in Milan)

Editing by Richard Balmforth

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