UN: World hunger at all-time high due to economic slowdown

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Countries by percentile of population suffering from undernourishment. Data from the FAO's 2006 hunger report.

The number of hungry people in the world is projected to reach an all-time high of 1.02 billion this year, according to a report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The report blames this latest spike in world hunger chiefly on the global economic recession, which has increased unemployment and reduced incomes among the poor, leading to greater food insecurity.

The report, published on Friday, estimates that over 1 billion people will go hungry each day in 2009, a first in human history. This is a significant increase over last year's estimate of 915 million hungry people. According to the FAO, this increase of around 100 million people is not a result of poor harvests, as in the past, but rather a poor economy.

"A dangerous mix of the global economic slowdown combined with stubbornly high food prices in many countries has pushed some 100 million more people than last year into chronic hunger and poverty," said Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the FAO. "The silent hunger crisis — affecting one sixth of all of humanity — poses a serious risk for world peace and security."

Although food prices have declined from their record high levels in mid-2008, the report states that global food prices are still high compared to previous years, and that domestic prices remain prohibitively high in developing countries. In Mauritania, for example, a {{w|staple food|| such as wheat still costs over 600 USD per tonne, whereas in the United States the price has fallen below 300 USD.

The silent hunger crisis — affecting one sixth of all of humanity — poses a serious risk for world peace and security.

—Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General

The current economic situation has intensified the problem created by high food prices. Many sources of income for developing countries, including remittances, foreign direct investment, foreign aid, and international trade, are expected to undergo severe declines. In addition, because of the global nature of the economic crisis, previously-used mechanisms such as currency depreciation and borrowing from international credit markets are more limited in their scope, according to the FAO.

In developing countries, the report says, the urban poor are likely to be most affected by the economic slowdown, as their ability to find work is most dependent on factors like foreign investment and export demand. However, rural areas could also be affected, as an urban back-migration to the farms would put more pressure on an already strained rural job market. Budget constraints would lead families to purchase more grain products, which are cheaper than meat, dairy products, and other foods rich in protein. The result of such diet changes is often malnutrition.

Investment in agriculture, according to Director-General Diouf, is the key to overcoming poverty and hunger in poorer countries. These countries "must be given the development, economic and policy tools required to boost their agricultural production and productivity", he said.

Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, says that investment in agriculture is not only essential for overcoming hunger, but also for promoting economic growth in developing countries. "To unleash this potential and reduce the number of hungry people in the world," he said, the international community must ensure that farmers "have access not only to seeds and fertilisers but to tailored technologies, infrastructure, rural finance, and markets."

However, the economic slowdown has forced the UN’s World Food Programme to shut down some of its operations, as it receives less financial aid from donor countries. Out of a required yearly budget of 6.4 billion USD, the agency currently has less than one-fourth of that amount.