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Conundrum: fewer people are hungry, but hunger on the rise

A woman shows her malnourished baby at a nutritional rehabilitation centre in Tanout, southern Niger.

SIA KAMBOU/Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time in 15 years, the number of hungry people in the world has declined. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 925 million people are undernourished - a significant improvement from the 1.023 billion hungry the organization counted in 2009. While the decline is a good sign, global hunger experts say there is no cause to celebrate. The number of hungry people is still "unacceptably high," the UN warns.

The good news

Global hunger numbers are not skyrocketing.

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The economic downturn and international food-price increases of 2008 created a staggering jump in the number of undernourished people around the world: In 2009, the FAO for the first time counted more than one billion hungry people without access to sufficient food. That number set off worldwide alarm bells that planet was in the midst of a deepening food crisis.

This year's marked decrease to 925 million returns hunger trends to pre-2009 levels. Driving the decrease was a sharp decline in international and domestic food prices, which had jumped in 2008.

"For a while there, people were really hit with high food prices," said David Dawe, an economist with the FAO's Economic and Social Development Department. "We knew the big increase last year [in 2009]was largely due to a lack of access to food due to the economic crisis and some delay in world food prices coming down in domestic markets."

Helping matters were strong global cereal harvests during the past several years, meaning the food supply is adequate even though 2010 yields are forecast to be lower. As well, income levels are generally growing faster in emerging economies, such as India and China, than those in developed countries, according to the World Bank.

That growth likely accounts for the fact that Asia posted the biggest improvement over last year by reducing by 80 million the number of hungry people in the region. However, the region still has the highest number of undernourished people in the world: 578 million.

The bad news

World hunger is back on the rise.

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Rome-based FAO said the figures for 2010 do not include the millions of hungry people in three "emergency" areas: Pakistan; Haiti and the Sahel in Africa.

Pakistan, ravaged by both drought and flood, is particularly grim, with more than 10 million people "in urgent need of assistance," said Josette Sheerhan, executive director of the UN's World Food Program. An area the size of Italy has been inundated with water, just ahead of the harvest season, depriving farmers and other food, seeds, income and electrical power.

Before the global economic slump forced food prices and hunger to unforeseen highs, the proportion of hungry people in developing countries was already trending "slightly up," said FAO economist David Dawe.

In 2000, as part of the Millennium Summit, world leaders pledged to reduce the proportion of hungry people in developing countries from 20 per cent in early 1990s to 10 per cent by 2015.

"I don't think we're going to see big declines continuing into the future," Mr. Dawe said. "That will require more investment in agriculture and more economic growth in poor countries for a little big longer period of time."

Doubts are privately growing within the UN food agencies about substantial further progress toward the goal, which world leaders will discuss at a review summit next week in New York. The WFP's Ms. Sheerhan said it will be "extremely difficult to achieve" given the latest figures suggest a 16 per cent hunger rate, meaning only four percentage points worth of progress have been made during the past decade.

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According to the FAO, the bulk of malnourished people (98 per cent) remain concentrated in developing countries. Two thirds of those are concentrated in just seven countries: Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan. More than 40 per cent live in China and India alone.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the highest prevalence of hunger, with 30 per cent of the population undernourished.

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