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Press Release 98/69


Rome, November 26 -- The number of undernourished people in the world has increased since the early 1990s, mainly because there has been little progress in reducing poverty, according to new estimates released today in the annual UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, The State of Food and Agriculture 1998 (SOFA 98). The report notes the rise in the number of hungry people, despite significant reductions in hunger and malnutrition in several developing regions.

"The total number of chronically undernourished people in developing countries is now estimated to be 828 million for the 1994-96 period" up from 822 million for 1990-92, according to the report. In addition to weather-related crop damage leading to less domestic food availability in many countries, the problem was compounded by foreign exchange constraints that prevented the import of food to make up the domestic shortfall. Other factors involved in the growing numbers of hungry people include the growth in the total population and changing demographics that result in a larger proportion of that population being young, which leads to changes in minimum dietary requirements.

However, the overall percentage of malnourished as a part of the world population has declined over the same period from 20 to 19 percent, the report says, adding that this has not been sufficient to compensate for population growth.

SOFA 98 warns that global financial turmoil now threatens the earlier economic gains, including improved food security, made by many Asian and Latin American countries. Its negative effects on household incomes, employment and prospects for agricultural production and trade could lead to greater food insecurity for millions of people.

"Efforts to meet the World Food Summit goal of reducing, by at least half, the 1996 number of hungry people in the world by the year 2015 are all the more urgent," said Mr. Jacques Vercueil, Director of FAO's Agriculture and Economic Development Analysis Division that produced SOFA 98. "In East Asia and Southeast Asia, there are 258 million malnourished people. In South Asia, in 1994-96, there were 254 million undernourished people, up from 237 million in 1990-92," said Vercueil.

"In sub-Saharan Africa," he said, "the number of hungry is also increasing. Our most recent data on Africa south of the Sahara show an increase in malnourished people from 196 million in 1990-92 to 210 million in 1994-96.

"SOFA 98 also shows that the widening gap in income distribution in many parts of the world is also an important factor in undernourishment," Mr. Vercueil said.

"The largest absolute numbers of undernourished people are in Asia," according to SOFA 98, while the largest proportion of the population that is undernourished is in sub-Saharan Africa.

"More striking," says the report, "is the fact that, contrary to the overall tendency in the developing countries as a whole, the poorest group of countries has not been able to reduce the number or percentage of undernourished since 1969-71."

Globally, SOFA 98 says, "The number of countries facing food emergencies rose from 29 in mid-1997 to 36 in mid-1998, mainly owing to the effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon." Since going to press, that number has risen to 40, according to FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System.

In a special feature on Feeding the World's Cities, SOFA 98 says, "Over the next 20 years, 93 percent of urban growth will occur in the cities of the developing world. Some of these cities are already huge: the world now has more than 20 megacities with a population of more than 10 million each, while 50 years ago only New York City could claim that distinction." Dhaka in Bangladesh has a population of 9 million and is growing at an annual rate of 5 percent, adding 1,300 people as city residents every day.

It is a huge task to feed a city of several million people, says SOFA 98. "A city of 10 million people -- for example Manila, Cairo or Rio de Janeiro -- may need to import at least 6,000 tonnes of food per day. This requires much coordination among producers, transporters, market managers and retailers in stores, on the street and in open-air markets. By 2005, more than 50 percent of the world's population will be urban and food insecurity will become an increasingly urban problem. Consumer needs and the responsibilities of both government and private operators as well as marketing facilities are just some of the issues examined in the SOFA 98 feature.

The report also contains a special chapter on Rural Non-farm Income, that is: income derived from wage activities and self-employment in commerce, manufacturing and other services in rural areas. This kind of income "is an important resource for farm and other rural households, including the landless poor as well as rural town residents," says SOFA 98. The chapter looks at what can be done within rural areas themselves to increase overall economic activity and employment. and to strengthen the links between agriculture and the rural non-farm sector. It says that rural non-farm income activity too often falls into an institutional vacuum with ministries of industry focusing on urban industry and ministries of agriculture on farming. The chapter stresses the importance of greater ministerial coordination.

The book is an extensive and in-depth analysis of issues that will have a major impact on global food and agriculture policies in the coming years and decades.

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SOFA 98 can be purchased from the FAO Sales and Marketing Group, Information Division (fax: 39 06 57 05 33 60) -- E-mail:

For further information call FAO Information Officer John Riddle at: 39 06 57 05 32 59, or e-mail him at

Also, please visit the FAO Website at

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©FAO, 1998