14 February 2003, Rome -- In Brazil poverty affects more than a quarter of the population - some 44 million people. In the nine states in north eastern Brazil, the poorest parts of the country, almost half of all families live on approximately a dollar a day.

The first priority of the new President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is to ensure that every Brazilian eats three times a day. He has launched an ambitious programme called Zero Hunger, with the support of FAO.

Andrew MacMillan, Director of the Field Operation Division, talks about FAO's support for the Zero Hunger Project.

Brazil has long been viewed as a country with great social inequalities, but hunger has hardly been mentioned. Has there always been a lack of food in Brazil or is this a recent problem?

Hunger is the most extreme manifestation of the huge problem of poverty in Brazil. Few people die of starvation, but there is widespread chronic food insecurity and malnutrition. This means that people are unable to produce or gain access to enough food of an adequate quality for a healthy life. It is the hunger of the missed meal, and it is very debilitating.

The current situation needs urgent interventions and President Lula has given himself just the four years of his mandate to solve the problem. Will Brazil need emergency interventions?

It was President Lula himself who answered this question when he launched the Zero Hunger Project on 30 January 2003. He said solving hunger cannot be simply an emergency project but the situation requires both giving fish and showing how to fish at the same time.

Zero Hunger shares FAO's philosophy of eradicating world hunger, following the two-pronged approach of FAO's Anti-Hunger Programme - to both develop income-generating household agriculture and ensure adequate access to food.

In the north east of Brazil, almost half of all families live on approximately a dollar a day. It is for these people that we must act. And it is for this group of people that the Zero Hunger Project has begun its activities with the technical and financial backing of FAO.

What is the basis for the Zero Hunger Project?

The Zero Hunger Project recognizes that low incomes are the main cause of chronic hunger and that an income supplement needs to be provided. It will be done through an electronic card. The beneficiaries will have to show that funds received have been spent mainly on basic food items and cooking fuel. They will have to proof that their children go to school and that adults have enrolled in a training programme which will improve their employability, and thus reduce their dependence on future help.

How is FAO supporting this ambitious plan?

The FAO Director-General, Jacques Diouf, will visit Brazil to explore how we can deepen our collaboration further. For the moment, FAO has already approved three projects. Through these initiatives, FAO will support the Zero Hunger with expertise in areas such as urban and peri-urban agriculture, family farming, settlements and land reform, capacity building, monitoring and evaluation.

It is a paradox that Brazil is one of the world's main exporters of agricultural commodities - selling soya, sugar and coffee abroad. But on the other hand, according to FAO, 16.7 million people are undernourished.

Yes, there is no doubt that there has been a very impressive growth in large-scale farm production in Brazil over the last two decades but this has not happened in the subsistence farming sector.

In many countries, the very success of agriculture has been disastrous for poor rural people. Advanced countries have absorbed their surplus rural population in other sectors, allowing farm size to increase and economies of scale to take effect. But in most developing countries, small farmers have either had to remain on the land, often with a diminishing size of plot as families have grown, or tomigrate to the cities with no job in sight. Most chronically food insecure people are, therefore, small farmers or recent urban migrants who have fled rural destitution.

The Zero Hunger Project seeks to address this imbalance. It will use the extra demand for food which it creates to stimulate local markets, generating growth opportunities for farmers, especially small farmers. In this way it will help both poor consumers and poor producers.

Facts and figures:

- The top 20 percent of the population earn 60 percent of the country's income, whilst the lowest 20 percent survive on less than 4 percent.

- In 1999, 44 million Brazilians, more than a quarter of the population, lived in absolute poverty. Their daily income was below US$1.06. Recent figures suggest that this number is now over 50 million.

- The number of people who suffer from chronic undernourishment is not known accurately and is a subject of much debate. According to FAO's estimates, using methodology applied internationally, in 1998-2000, some 16.7 million Brazilians ( about 10 percent of the population) were chronically undernourished.