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Towards the World Food Summit target

Within every society, rich and poor, there are children too hungry to concentrate in school, underweight mothers who give birth to sickly children and chronically hungry adults who lack the energy to raise their families above the subsistence level. Where hunger is widespread, it is also a basic development issue impeding national economic growth and keeping millions trapped in poverty.

The state of food insecurity in the world (SOFI) was created to track progress towards ending this profound obstacle to human rights, quality of life and dignity. It was spurred by the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, where leaders of 186 countries pledged to reduce by half the number of hungry people in the world by 2015.

In this, the second edition, we introduce a new tool for measuring the severity of want: the depth of hunger. This is a measure of the per person food deficit of the undernourished population within each country. Measured in kilocalories, it aims to assess just how empty people's plates are each day.

Measurements of the depth of hunger demonstrate that undernourishment is far more debilitating in some places than in others. In the industrialized countries, hungry people lack 130kilocalories per day on average, while in five of the poorest countries, the daily food deficit is more than three times that, 450 kilocalories.

Most of the countries with the most extreme depth of hunger (more than 300 kilocalories per person per day) are located in Africa; others are found in the Near East (Afghanistan), the Caribbean (Haiti) and Asia (Bangladesh, Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Mongolia). Many of these countries face extraordinary obstacles such as conflict or recurrent natural disasters. They require special attention to lift them out of their current state of deep poverty and dire food insecurity.

SOFI 2000 also updates the estimate of the number of undernourished people. And I am disturbed to report that we find no significant change for the latest period, 1996-98, compared with the 1995-97 period reported last year.

We still estimate that 792 million people in 98 developing nations are not getting enough food to lead normal, healthy and active lives. Even in the industrialized nations and the countries in transition (those in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union) the number of undernourished remains the same: 34 million children, women and men. In a world of unprecedented wealth, these levels of need are disgraceful.

To realize the Summit target, we have to achieve a reduction of at least 20 million every year between now and 2015. The actual rate of decline, of slightly fewer than 8million per year since the early 1990s, is woefully inadequate. We cannot sit by and hope that hunger will decrease simply as a by-product of rising incomes and slower population growth. Under that "business as usual" scenario we would reduce global hunger by slightly less than one-third, not one-half.

Can we direct our efforts to get "on track" for reducing hunger by 50 percent? The World Food Summit goal is reachable, just as other seemingly impossible aims have been met, such as the eradication of polio or putting a person on the moon. What we need to do is adopt more urgent, targeted measures quickly.

Number of undernourished in the developing world: observed and projected ranges compared with the World Food Summit target

As in last year's edition, SOFI 2000 highlights short-term and long-term measures that together offer possible solutions to hunger:

  • We must address conflict, the cause of the deepest hunger in most of the poorest countries of the world. Conflict resolution and peacekeeping activities must be seen as vital tools in fighting hunger. Once peace is achieved, war-shattered economies must be rebuilt.
  • We must make the investment needed to build foundations for sustainable, longer-term economic growth and poverty reduction. Our story on Thailand shows how undernourishment was greatly reduced over 15 years as a result of economic growth and specific policies to reduce poverty and improve nutrition levels.
  • We must set priorities. Countries and their development partners must target the people who are suffering the deepest hunger. Safety nets - from cash transfers to school lunch programmes - must be in place to protect the most vulnerable.
  • We must orient agricultural research towards improvement of agricultural commodity production, which helps the poor in the cities as well as in the countryside. This is illustrated by our story on the research efforts that vastly increased cassava production in Ghana and Nigeria.
  • FAO and its partners will continue to monitor progress towards the goal of reducing chronic undernourishment by half by 2015. In this era of global abundance, why does the world continue to tolerate the daily hunger and deprivation of more than 800 million people? We must work together, and quickly. I am convinced we will see the day when FAO ceases to publish a report titled The state of food insecurity in the world because the world will have lived up to its promise to end hunger.

    Jacques Diouf

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