Even before the economic crisis pushed the ranks of the world's hungry to a record 1 billion, declining aid and investment in agriculture had been steadily increasing the number of undernourished people for more than a decade, a U.N. food agency said Wednesday.
Unless these trends are reversed, ambitious goals set by the international community to slash the number of hungry people by 2015 will not be met, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned in a report.
After gains in the fight against hunger in the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of undernourished people started climbing in 1995, reaching 1.02 billion this year under the combined effect of high food prices and the global financial meltdown, the agency said. The figure topped the 1 billion mark in June, and was 963 million a year ago.
The blame for the long-term trend rests largely on the reduced share of aid and private investments earmarked for agriculture over recent years, the Rome-based agency said in its State of Food Insecurity report for 2009.
"In the fight against hunger the focus should be on increasing food production," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said. "It's common sense ... that agriculture would be given the priority, but the opposite has happened."
In 1980, 17 percent of aid contributed by donor countries went to agriculture. That share was down to 3.8 percent in 2006 and only slightly improved in the last three years, Diouf said in an interview with AP Television News.
The decline may have been caused by low food prices that discouraged investment in agriculture and competition for funds from other aid fields including emergency relief, debt reduction and population control, said FAO economist David Dawe.
Against the backdrop of this trend, the world's hungry were hit with a double blow recently. First, soaring prices for food staples in 2007 and 2008 forced poor families to sell their meager assets and cut down on meals, health and education spending.
Although the inflated prices — which caused riots across the globe last year — have stabilized, they remain comparatively high, especially in the developing world, Diouf told APTN.
In the meantime, the world economic crisis is increasing unemployment, reducing remittances that immigrants send back home and making it difficult for poor countries to get credit lines to buy food on the market, Diouf said.
Thirty countries now require emergency food assistance, including 20 in Africa. FAO announced in June that the number of hungry people had reached 1 billion, or one in six of the world's population. The world's most populous region, Asia and the Pacific, has the largest number of hungry people — 642 million — followed by Sub-Saharan Africa with 265 million.
"The current crisis is historically unprecedented" said the new report. "With developing countries today more financially and commercially integrated into the world economy than they were 20 years ago, they are far more exposed to shocks in international markets."
Diouf said world leaders are starting to understand that investment in agriculture must be increased. He cited the goal set by July's Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, to raise $20 billion to help farmers in poor countries produce more — a shift from previous emphasis on delivering food aid.
However, more investments will be needed to fulfill pledges like the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve of the number of those living in hunger and poverty by 2015, the report said.
FAO, which will host a world food summit next month, says global food output will have to increase by 70 percent to feed a projected population of 9.1 billion in 2050.
To achieve that, poor countries will need $44 billion yearly of aid to agriculture, compared with the current $7.9 billion, to increase access to irrigation systems, modern machinery, as well as to build roads and train farmers.