Rising prices have plunged an additional 75 million people below the hunger threshold, bringing the estimated number of undernourished people worldwide to 923 million in 2007, FAO said today.
High food prices have reversed the previously positive trend towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half the proportion of people suffering from hunger worldwide by 2015, according to new figures just released by the UN agency in advance of next week’s General Assembly session on the MDGs.
The achievement of the World Food Summit goal of halving the number of hungry people is even more remote, FAO said.
FAO estimates had put the number of people suffering from chronic hunger worldwide in 2003-05 at 848 million, an increase of 6 million from the 842 million in 1990-92, the World Food Summit baseline period.
Soaring food, fuel and fertilizer prices have exacerbated the problem, the organization said. Food prices rose 52 percent between 2007 and 2008, and fertilizer prices have nearly doubled over the past year.
“The devastating effects of high food prices on the number of hungry people compound already worrisome long-term trends,” said Hafez Ghanem, FAO Assistant Director-General for Economic and Social Development. “Hunger increased as the world grew richer and produced more food than ever during the last decade.”
For net food buyers – which includes nearly all urban and a large share of rural households, there has been a negative short-term impact of high food prices on household income and welfare. The poorest, the landless and female-headed households have been hardest hit.
These negative trends in the fight against hunger imperil efforts to realize many of the other MDGs, according to Ghanem.
In addition to the devastating social cost of hunger on human lives, empirical evidence points to the negative impact of hunger and malnutrition on labour productivity, health and education, which ultimately causes lower levels of overall economic growth.
“Hunger is a cause of poverty, not just a consequence of it,” says FAO economist Kostas Stamoulis. “The economic cost of hunger in terms of both resources needed to deal with its effects and the value of productivity and income losses is estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars a year.”
The debilitating effect of hunger on human productivity and income leads to a hunger trap, Stamoulis says, with extreme poverty causing hunger which then perpetuates poverty.
Breaking the hunger-poverty trap
“Reducing the number of hungry people by 500 million in the remaining 7 years to 2015 will require an enormous and resolute global effort and concrete actions,” said Ghanem.
To break the hunger-poverty trap, action is urgently needed on two fronts, FAO says – making food accessible to the most vulnerable, and helping small producers raise their output and earn more.
FAO’s twin-track approach aims to create opportunities for the hungry to improve their livelihoods by promoting agricultural and rural development. It also involves policies and programmes, such as social safety nets, which enhance direct and immediate access to food by the hungry.
In December 2007 FAO launched its Initiative on Soaring Food Prices to help vulnerable countries put in place urgent measures to boost food supplies and provide policy support to improve access to food.
The Initiative includes emergency projects, either ongoing or planned, in at least 78 countries worldwide. Immediate activities include distribution of seeds, fertilizer, animal feed and other farming tools and supplies to smallholder farmers.
“Urgent, broad-based and large-scale investments are needed to address in a sustainable manner the growing food insecurity problems affecting the poor and hungry,” Ghanem said. “No single country or institution will be able to resolve this crisis on its own.”
According to FAO, the countries hardest hit by the current crisis, most of them in Africa, will need at least US$30 billion annually to ensure food security and revive long-neglected agricultural systems.
But hunger reduction has big payoffs and should be a top development priority, says Stamoulis.
“Reducing the incidence of hunger worldwide will greatly improve the chances of meeting the MDGs related to poverty reduction, education, child mortality, maternal health and disease,” he said. “Public spending on reducing hunger is an investment with very high returns.”