ROME, October 24 -- While hunger afflicts about 20 per cent of the populations of developing countries, food insecurity is also evident in developed countries and has become widespread in parts of the former Soviet Union, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today. FAO made the assessment in "Food Security and Nutrition," one of a series of technical background documents prepared for the World Food Summit.

Leaders of close to 200 countries invited to meet at FAO Headquarters 13-17 are expected to renew their commitment to the achievement of universal food security and agree on a Plan of Action to be carried out in partnership with international and non-governmental organizations, the private sector and civil society.

An estimated 841 million people are hungry (food-energy deficient), i.e. 20 percent of the developing countries' populations," the report said. "This figure does not include the hungry in the industrialized countries or in the countries with economies under transition." The report cited South Asia, particularly India and Bangladesh, and Africa south of the Sahara as the areas with the largest proportion of undernourished people.

Africa south of the Sahara is the only major area where the proportion of undernourished people has risen over the last quarter century -- from 38 percent in 1969-1971 to 43 percent in 1990-92, and famine is still a threat, the report said.

In contrast to the late 1960s, early 1970s or even the 1980s, the symptoms of famine are evident today only in a few African countries and localized in war zones, it said. "The risk of famine continues to exist, however, due to political, economic and environmental shocks and inadequate preparedness, mainly at the national level.

Economic problems that began in the developed countries in the 1980s and in the Russian Federation and particularly in central Asia more recently with the breakup of the Soviet Union have also been responsible for increasing food insecurity, FAO said.

In the course of the 1980s and 1990s, as the distribution of income in the industrialized countries of North America and Europe has become more uneven and as social-welfare spending has been cut back in the face of rising unemployment, the need for food assistance among low-income groups has grown," the report said. Homeless people are especially vulnerable to food insecurity."

In the former Soviet Union, the report blamed "malfunctioning markets, lack of safety nets, and underemployment" for what it called a substantial increase in the food-insecure population groups of some economies in transition.

Malnutrition is also a problem among high-income groups in both the developed and developing worlds and contributes to diseases responsible for almost two-thirds of all deaths in developed countries, FAO said.

Particularly in the industrialized countries, there has been increasing recognition over the past 40 years that certain chronic, non- communicable diseases are closely related to diet and aspects of lifestyle, such as emotional stress, reduced physical exercise and tobacco-use, the report said.

These factors have been found to be particularly important in relation to obesity, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, stroke, diabetes mellitus (non-insulin-dependent), various forms of cancer, liver diseases and gastro-intenstinal diseases. These diseases are responsible for more than 70 percent of all deaths in developed countries.

The report called for a range of specific actions, which would vary from one country to another, to fight both undernourishment and malnourishment. They included reducing poverty through employment and infrastructure-improvement, providing food subsidies, food stamps, targeted feeding, and health and sanitation assistance to address the immediate problems of the poor, and teaching better nutrition to both low and higher income groups.

The report said that policymakers must recognize that poverty is a major cause of food insecurity and poor health, that agriculture both produces food and helps to provide employment and income to the poor and that malnutrition leads to losses in productivity and the misallocation of scarse resources.

Preconditions for tackling a country's nutritional problems usually include appropriate macroeonomic policies and development strategies, related trade, storage and food aid policies and policies and programmes for increasing agricultural production and raising productivity, the report said.

FAO said priority should be given to setting targets for reducing malnutrition, developing human resources and faciliting sustainable population growth, promoting employment-intensive growth, preventing famine as a result of armed conflict or other causes and encouraging self help at the community and household level through education and empowerment, especially of women.

It is imperative that the governmental organizations, particularly ministries, as well as non-governmental interests involved in nutritional improvement activities be well coordinated at the national level," the report said. It called for development of national strategies involving all food and agriculture interests to make sure that actions aimed at food-security and nutritional improvement are sustained and consistent.

The report also urged creation of an international reporting system for measuring national progress toward nutritional well-being. It said this would help to create political understanding for implementing needed actions.