Hunger: facts, prospects

Posted: 13 December 2007

Some 820 million in developing countries are undernourished, the FAO reported in 2006. This is 20 million more than in 1996 whengovernments pledged at a World Food Summit (WFS) to halve the number of hungry in the world by 2015. Worldwide the number of undernourished people totals 854 million, with 25 million in the transition countries and 9 million in the industrialized countries adding to the number in developing countries.

Undernourished 2001-03
Undernourished 2001-03

  • Millions of people, including 6 million children under the age of 5, die each year as a result of hunger. Hunger not only reduces life expectancy. It costs developing countries up to $128 billion a year in productivity losses, according to FAO.
  • Since the World Food Summit in 1996, many donors have reduced their aid to agriculture. In 1982, 17 per cent of development assistance went to agriculture. By 2002, this had fallen to 3.7 per cent.

  • A disproportionately large number of those who suffer from malnutrition are women and children.

  • In 1984, only about 10 per cent of the world's food emergencies were caused by man-made disasters such as civil wars. By 1999, it was 53 per cent. There is a strikingly close relationship between incidences of civil conflict and child mortality.

  • In sub-Saharan Africa, there has been progress in reducing the prevalence of undernourishment. For the first time in several decades, the share of undernourished people in the region's population declined significantly - from 35 per cent in 1990-92 to 32 per cent in 2001-03, after having reached 36 percent in 1995-97. Southern Africa, West Africa, East Africa and Nigeria saw a decline in the prevalence of undernourishment, but Central Africa experienced a dramatic increase.

  • According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around half of the world's population suffers from poor nutrition. The number of people who eat too much, and suffer from obesity, cholesterol-choked arteries and the like, probably exceeds the number of hungry. They are concentrated in the affluent North with the United States leading in the fatty stakes, and Britain not far behind.

  • Several billion people are classified as the hidden hungry. They may appear adequately fed, but suffer in some way from the lack of essential vitamins or minerals. According to UNICEF, almost 2 billion people are anaemic and 3.7 billion are iron-deficient, most being women. In Africa and Asia iron-deficiency anaemia is thought to cause around a fifth of all maternal deaths. Between 100 and 140 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness, and diseases associated with this deficiency kill a million children a year. Some 20 million people worldwide are mentally handicapped as a result of iodine deficiency.

  • Keeping the World Food Summit pledge would require reducing the number of undernourished by 31 million every year until 2015, says the FAO. The FAO's State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) 2006 reported that in the past ten years, the proportion of people suffering from hunger in developing countries has gone down as the overall population has gone up. One in five people in the developing countries were undernourished in 1990-92, and this has now gone down to 17 per cent.

  • Reducing hunger, says the State of Food Insecurity in the World report, will be particularly difficult for countries characterised by historically very high levels of hunger prevalence, very low food consumption, low economic growth prospects, high population growth rates and a limited agricultural resource base. Thirty-two countries fall into this category - with undernourishment rates ranging from 29 to 72 per cent of the population and an average prevalence of 42 per cent. Their current population of 580 million is projected to rise to 1.39 billion by 2050. "Despite their poor historical record, however, several of these countries could achieve significant gains by prioritising the development of local food production, as other countries have done in the past," says the report.

  • The WFS target is still attainable if concrete and concerted action is taken, says the SOFI report. "This should be based on a twin-track approach emphasising direct action against hunger together with a focus on agricultural and rural development."