World hunger

The world is losing the battle against hunger, with the number of malnourished people in developing nations now put at 815 million and rising, according to a U.N. report.

The report’s findings make an eight-year-old pledge by governments to halve the number of the world’s hungry by 2015 seem difficult to reach – the number in the developing world is just 9 million lower than in 1990-1992.

Yet the report by the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization insisted that achieving the target is still possible, and that progress toward that goal would provide countries with rich returns through boosts to productivity and income.

Hartwig De Haen, assistant director-general of the agency’s economic and social department, described the target as ‘ambitious but still feasible.’

The report proposed a combination of programs to help boost agricultural productivity and direct food aid to achieve the 2015 target. Governments set the goal at the U.N. World Food Summit in 1996, using 1990-1992 as the base date.

Though the number of hungry people in developing countries fell in the early 1990s, that trend was later reversed, said the report, the agency’s annual update on world hunger. By 2000-2002 the figure stood at 815 million, just 9 million below the estimate of a decade earlier.

With an additional 28 million hungry people in ‘transition’ countries such as those in eastern Europe, and 9 million in industrialized countries, the global total in 2000-2002 stood at 852 million. The report details the massive human costs of global hunger, saying present levels of undernourishment cause the death of more than 5 million children every year – or one child every five seconds.

But it also appeals to economic rationale, saying that every dollar (euro) invested against hunger provides 5-20 times as much in return.

‘It is possible that the international community has not fully grasped the economic bounce that would be possible from investments in hunger reduction,’ De Haen told a news conference.

According to the report, hunger and malnutrition cost around US$30 billion in direct medical expenses each year, with estimated indirect costs due to premature death and disability ballooning into hundreds of billions of dollars (euros).

The report said hunger cuts productivity and earnings, reduces school attendance and erodes cognitive abilities.

According to the agency’s estimates, an annual increase in funding of US$24 billion would be needed to reach the hunger target – but returns would reach US$120 billion each year.

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