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Number of hungry people rises to 963 million

High food prices to blame – economic crisis could compound woes

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
The poorest, landless and female-headed households are hardest hit by high food prices.

9 December 2008, Rome - Another 40 million people have been pushed into hunger this year primarily due to higher food prices, according to preliminary estimates published by FAO today. This brings the overall number of undernourished people in the world to 963 million, compared to 923 million in 2007 and the ongoing financial and economic crisis could tip even more people into hunger and poverty, FAO warned.

"World food prices have dropped since early 2008, but lower prices have not ended the food crisis in many poor countries," said FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem, presenting the new edition of FAO's hunger report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008.

"For millions of people in developing countries, eating the minimum amount of food every day to live an active and healthy life is a distant dream. The structural problems of hunger, like the lack of access to land, credit and employment, combined with high food prices remain a dire reality," he stressed.

Prices of major cereals have fallen by over 50 percent from their peaks earlier in 2008 but they remain high compared to previous years. Despite its sharp decline in recent months, the FAO Food Price Index was still 28 percent higher in October 2008 compared to October 2006. With prices for seeds and fertilizers (and other inputs) more than doubling since 2006, poor farmers could not increase production. But richer farmers, particularly those in developed countries, could afford the higher input costs and expand plantings. As a result, cereal production in developed countries is likely to rise by at least 10 percent in 2008. The increase in developing countries may not exceed even one percent.

"If lower prices and the credit crunch associated with the economic crisis force farmers to plant less food, another round of dramatic food prices could be unleashed next year," Ghanem added. "The 1996 World Food Summit target, to reduce the number of hungry by half by 2015, requires a strong political commitment and investment in poor countries of at least $30 billion per year for agriculture and social protection of the poor," Ghanem said.

Where the hungry live

The vast majority of the world's undernourished people - 907 million - live in developing countries, according to the 2007 data reported by the State of Food Insecurity in the World. Of these, 65 percent live in only seven countries: India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia. Progress in these countries with large populations would have an important impact on global hunger reduction.

With a very large population and relatively slow progress in hunger reduction, nearly two-thirds of the world's hungry live in Asia (583 million in 2007). On the positive side, some countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand and Viet Nam have made good progress towards achieving the WFS target, while South Asia and Central Asia have suffered setbacks in hunger reduction.

In sub-Saharan Africa, one in three people - or 236 million (2007) - are chronically hungry, the highest proportion of undernourished people in the total population, according to the report. Most of the increase in the number of hungry occurred in a single country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a result of widespread and persistent conflict, from 11 million to 43 million (in 2003-05) and the proportion of undernourished rose from 29 to 76 percent.

Overall, sub-Saharan Africa has made some progress in reducing the proportion of people suffering from chronic hunger, down from 34 (1995-97) to 30 percent (2003-2005). Ghana, Congo, Nigeria, Mozambique and Malawi have achieved the steepest reductions in the proportion of undernourished. Ghana is the only country that has reached both the hunger reduction target of the World Food Summit and the Millennium Development Goals. Growth in agricultural production was key in this success.

Latin America and the Caribbean were most successful in reducing hunger before the surge in food prices. High food prices have increased the number of hungry people in the sub-region to 51 million in 2007.

Countries in the Near East and North Africa generally experience the lowest levels of undernourishment in the world. But conflicts (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and high food prices have pushed the numbers up from 15 million in 1990-92 to 37 million in 2007.

Almost out of reach

Some countries were well on track towards reaching the summit's target, before food prices skyrocketed but "Even these countries may have suffered setbacks - some of the progress has been cancelled due to high food prices. The crisis has mainly affected the poorest, landless and households run by women," Ghanem said. "It will require an enormous and resolute global effort and concrete actions to reduce the number of hungry by 500 million by 2015."

Exporters under threat

The world hunger situation may further deteriorate as the financial crisis hits the real economies of more and more countries. Reduced demand in developed countries threatens incomes in developing countries via exports. Remittances, investments and other capital flows including development aid are also at risk. Emerging economies in particular are subject to lasting impacts from the credit crunch even if the crisis itself is short-lived.