ROME, 15 October 2002 -- Progress in reducing world hunger has virtually come to a halt, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in its annual report "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002". As a result of hunger, millions of people, including 6 million children under the age of five, die each year. The report was released on the occasion of World Food Day, 16 October.

FAO estimates, that there were around 840 million undernourished people in 1998-2000, 799 million in the developing countries, 30 million in the countries in transition and 11 million in the industrialized countries.

Between 1990-92 and 1998-2000, the number of undernourished people decreased by barely 2.5 million per year and in most regions the number of undernourished people may be actually growing. (*)

FAO claims that unless trends are sharply reversed, the world will be very far from reaching the World Food Summit 1996 goal, to reduce the number of hungry by half by 2015.

"The price we pay for this lack of progress is heavy," said FAO Director-General Dr. Jacques Diouf in the foreword to the report. "The hungry themselves pay most immediately and most painfully. But the costs are also crippling for their communities, their countries and the global village that we all inhabit and share. To reach the goal of the World Food Summit, the number of hungry people needs to be reduced by 24 million each year from now until 2015".

Each year, chronic hunger and malnutrition kills millions of people. This "hidden famine" stunts their development, saps their strength and cripples their immune system. Where hunger is widespread, mortality rates for infants and children under five are high, and life expectancy is low.

"In the worst affected countries, a newborn child can look forward to an average of barely 38 years of healthy life, compared to over 70 years of life in 24 wealthy nations." One in seven children born in poor countries where hunger is most common will die before reaching the age of five. Most children are dying because they lack adequate food and essential nutrients, which leaves them weak, underweight and vulnerable. These children are highly at risk from infectious diseases. The four biggest killers of children in developing countries are diarrhoea, acute respiratory illness, malaria and measles.

Over 2 billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient malnutrition. Their diets supply inadequate amounts of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, iron, iodine, zinc and vitamin C. Micronutrients are essential for human growth and development. Children and women are most vulnerable to the lack of micronutrients. Between 100 and 140 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness. Some 20 million people worldwide are mentally handicapped as a result of iodine deficiency.

"We do not have the excuse that we cannot grow enough food or that we do not know enough about how to eliminate hunger. What remains to be proven is that we care enough, that our expressions of concern in international fora are more than rhetoric, that we will no longer accept and ignore the suffering of 840 million hungry people or the daily death toll of 25 000 victims of hunger and poverty," Dr. Diouf said.

The marginal gains in reducing the number of hungry are the result of rapid progress in a few large countries, FAO said. "China alone has reduced the number of undernourished people by 74 million since 1990-92. Indonesia, Viet Nam, Thailand, Nigeria, Ghana and Peru have all achieved reductions of more than 3 million. This helped to offset an increase of 96 million in 47 countries. If China is set aside, the number of undernourished people in the rest of the developing world has increased by more than 50 million since 1990-92."

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to have the highest prevalence of undernourishment and also the largest increase in the number of undernourished people. Most of theincrease took place in Central Africa, mainly in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the number of undernourished people has tripled.

West Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, have reduced significantly both the prevalence and the number of undernourished people. But prospects are troubling for Central America, the Near East and East Asia, excluding China.

The picture is more encouraging if one looks at the number of hungry as a proportion of a country's total population. "In the majority of developing countries, the proportion has actually decreased since the World Food Summit in 1996."

Most of the widespread hunger in a world of plenty results from poverty, the report said. Other causes are droughts or floods, armed conflict, political, social and economic disruptions. Around 30 countries are currently facing exceptional food emergencies, with an estimated 67 million people requiring emergency food aid.

Conflict is one of the most common causes of food insecurity. War and civil strife were the major causes in 15 countries that suffered exceptional food emergencies in 2001 and early 2002.

Conflict in sub-Saharan Africa resulted in losses of almost US$52 billion in agricultural output between 1970 and 1997, a figure equivalent to 75 percent of all official development assistance received by the conflict-affected countries. Estimated losses in agricultural output for all developing countries averaged US$4.3 billion per year, enough to have raised the food intake of 330 million hungry people to minimum required levels.

The report emphasized that secure access to land is one of the key factors for food security. It noted that severe poverty and hunger are concentrated among the landless or farmers whose plots are too small to provide for their needs. More than 30 percent of the rural poor in Latin America and the Caribbean are landless. Improving access to land can have a major impact on reducing poverty and hunger. Developing countries where land was more equally distributed have made more rapid progress in reducing the prevalence of hunger.

Growth of the agricultural sector is essential to reducing hunger and poverty. Countries where hunger and poverty are widespread invest significantly less in their agriculture than those with less hunger, according to the report. Actual public expenditures for agriculture and rural development in the developing world do not reflect the importance of the sector to their national economies. Official development assistance to agriculture declined by an alarming 48 percent between 1990 and 1999.

According to the Anti-Hunger Programme proposed by FAO, additional public investment of US$24 billion annually would be needed to accelerate progress in reducing hunger and reach the target of the World Food Summit, FAO said. The investments should be focused on poor countries with large numbers of undernourished people. The global benefits of reducing the number of hungry by half would be at least US$120 billion per year as a result of longer, healthier and more productive lives for several hundred million people. FAO has proposed that the financing of the investment be divided on average equally between industrialized and developing countries.

(*) The figures reflect more recent and revised past data so they may not be comparable to previous FAO estimates. FAO regularly updates its earlier figures on undernourishment as corrected data are provided by member countries. The estimate for 1998-2000 should therefore not be compared with the estimate for 1997-99 (777 million hungry people in developing countries) published in the 2001 edition of this report.