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The State of Food and Agriculture 1999: Hunger declining, but unevenly

The number of undernourished people in developing countries has fallen below 800 million. This is one of the more encouraging findings contained in the 1999 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA), released for discussion at the 30th session of the FAO Conference, which opened on 12 November.

In his address to the Conference, Mr Hartwig de Haen, Assistant Director-General of FAO's Economic and Social Department, pointed out that "the net decline hides considerable variation between developing countries." In the five years between the early and mid-1990s, the number of undernourished people in developing countries has fallen by 40 million, from 830 million to 790 million. SOFA 1999 reports new FAO findings which show that 37 developing countries accounted for a decline of 100 million, with India and China contributing almost two-thirds of this number. But another 59 developing countries saw their undernourished populations increase by 60 million. The report confirms that the current rate of progress in fighting hunger, which has reduced the number of undernourished people by 8 million a year, is not enough to meet the goal set by the 1996 World Food Summit: a reduction in the number of the world's hungry by half by the year 2015. To achieve this goal, the pace must be stepped up to the point where the average annual reduction in the world's undernourished reaches 20 million.

Changes in crop and livestock production, 1991-99
Click on the graphic to see it full size
Click on the graphic to see it full size

Data included in SOFA 1999 reveal that every region in the developing world has witnessed a significant drop in the percentage of undernourished people except sub-Saharan Africa, where the percentage has remained unchanged. However, as de Haen made clear, "a decline in percentage terms does not always correspond to a decline in absolute numbers." For example, in South Asia, where the percentage of undernourished people has gone down considerably, the number of undernourished has risen from about 270 million to 280 million since the early 1970s. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of hungry people has doubled from 90 million to 180 million during the same period.

The international financial crisis and global agriculture

SOFA 1999 also reviews global agriculture from the perspective of supply and demand, both of which have been hit hard by the recent financial crisis. In crisis-hit countries of Asia, lower agricultural output and demand, along with falling gross domestic product and increased unemployment, created greater food insecurity for large segments of the population. The effects of the crisis were felt globally, as the reduced purchasing power of crisis-hit countries caused import demand and agricultural commodity prices to decline worldwide.

On the supply side, figures from 1998 show no growth in total crop and livestock production. For 1999, the final outcome is expected to be a growth rate of less than 1 percent. For developing countries, the annual agricultural production growth rate of less than 1 percent for 1998 and 1999 marks the first time in a decade that agricultural output has increased by less than 3 percent.

Official development assistance, 1980-97
Click on graphic to see it full size

Click on graphic to see it full size

Threats to food security

According to SOFA 1999, approximately 35 countries - 14 of which are in Africa - are currently facing food shortages that require emergency food assistance. Food shortages however, are not just limited to the developing world. Five countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States and four European countries, all in the Balkans, are also experiencing food crises. The report highlights an alarming trend in this regard - human factors, such as armed conflicts and economic collapse, are playing an increasing role in provoking food shortages. Natural disasters were responsible for less than half the food emergencies in 1999, whereas 15 years ago they accounted for almost all of them.

At the FAO Conference, de Haen emphasized that preventing conflict and assuring sustainable economic growth are essential if World Food Summit goals are to be met and emergency food shortages avoided. De Haen noted that investment in agriculture - including rural infrastructure and services such as research and extension, marketing, education and health - is particularly important for the countries most affected by hunger. He added that to achieve the World Food Summit target would require agricultural investment on the order of US$180 billion per year in developing countries, significantly above the current annual rate of investment. He also reported figures showing that official development assistance to agriculture has declined substantially in real terms during this decade.

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15 November 1999

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