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Urgent action needed to combat hunger as number of undernourished in the world increases

Number of undernourished in all developing countries

The number of chronically hungry people in the world has increased since the early 1990s, after declining steadily during the previous two decades. That is the unfortunate finding of "The State of Food and Agriculture 1998" (SOFA 98), FAO's annual flagship report. The report was prepared and released for discussion at the meeting of the Council, FAO's interim governing body, from 23 to 28 November.

Contrary to the declining trend in the total number of chronically undernourished people in developing countries since 1970, the new report puts the number of undernourished people in the world at 828 million for the 1994-96 period, up from 822 million in 1990-92. The percentage of undernourished people in the world is estimated to have dropped slightly over the same period, from 20 to 19 percent, but this has not been sufficient to compensate for population growth.

The largest absolute numbers of undernourished people are in Asia, while the largest proportion of the population that is undernourished is in Africa, south of the Sahara, according to the report.

"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 Jacques Vercueil, Director of FAO's Agricultural and Economic Development Analysis Division, which produced SOFA 98. In November 1996, heads of state and government from 186 countries gathered in Rome for the World Food Summit and pledged their commitment to reducing by half the number of chronically undernourished people in the world by the year 2015.

The increase in the number of hungry people has been caused mainly by lack of progress in reducing poverty in the world. "SOFA 98 notes that the widening gap in income distribution in many parts of the world is also a worrying trend for undernourishment," according to Vercueil.

Data show that hunger and poor economic performance form a vicious circle. Over the decade 1985-95, the countries with the highest proportion of undernourished - 50 percent or more of their population - have all had a stagnant or worsening per caput income. Similarly, income growth has stagnated or declined in most of the countries where more than 30 percent of the people are chronically hungry. The only group of countries within which most have registered gains in per caput income consists of those where less than 20 percent of the population is undernourished.

Special features on feeding cities and rural non-farm income

FAO's annual flagship report analyses global and regional developments in food and agriculture, including fisheries and forestry, and examines key issues facing the sector. The 1998 edition of SOFA also covers recent trends in agricultural production, the problem of feeding growing urban populations and the importance of non-farm income activity for rural areas.

Handmaking terracotta plates in Mexico: rural non-farm income activity interacts dynamically with agricultural development
(FAO/J. Spaull/20306)

In a special feature on feeding the cities, it is estimated that by 2005, more than 50 percent of the world's population will be urban, and food insecurity will become an increasingly urban problem. Over 90 percent of urban growth in the next 20 years will be in the cities of the developing world. This feature examines a number of issues related to the rapid growth of cities, including consumer needs and the responsibilities of both government and private operators, as well as marketing facilities in urban areas.

A special chapter in the report focuses on rural non-farm (RNF) activities, such as commerce, manufacturing and other services. Increasingly these activities are being recognized as an essential part of the equation that determines agricultural and rural households' quality of life. In all regions of the world, RNF is a significant part of the income and resources of so-called "farm households". The special chapter emphasizes that, "RNF income is an important factor in household economies and therefore also in food security, since it allows greater access to food." As a source of income that may tip the balance against hunger, it "may also prevent rapid or excessive urbanization as well as natural resource degradation through overexploitation", according to the book.

RNF activity interacts dynamically with agricultural development. Money earned off the farm is often ploughed back into agriculture - with purchases of fertilizer, quality seeds, or machinery - leading to increased production and farm incomes. Increased RNF activity in the food system (including agroprocessing, distribution and the provision of farm inputs) can also make farming more profitable by making better inputs available and improving access to markets. A dynamic agriculture sector feeds fast growth in the RNF sector - because, "farm output is available for processing and distribution, ... there are inputs to be sold and equipment repaired and ... farm cash incomes are spent on local goods and services".

One of the main purposes of the special chapter is to "sensitize governments, donors and development agencies to the issue of RNF activity" and the catalytic role it can play in rural and agricultural development, and in lifting rural people out of the poverty trap.

"The State of Food and Agriculture 1998" is available in five languages - Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Spanish. The 371-page publication may be ordered from the FAO Sales and Marketing Group, Information Division.

26 November 1998

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