ROME - One out of every eight people in the world is chronically undernourished, the United Nations' food agencies said on Tuesday, warning that progress to reduce hunger has slowed since 2007/08 when high food prices sparked riots in several poor countries.
In their latest report on food insecurity, the UN agencies estimated that 868 million people were suffering hunger in 2010-2012, or about 12.5 percent of the world's population, down more sharply than previously estimated from about 1 billion, or 18.6 percent in 1990-92.
The new figures are lower than the last estimates for recent years that pegged the number of hungry people at 925 million in 2010 and 1.02 billion in 2009.
"That is better news than we have had in the past, but it still means that one person in every eight goes hungry. That is unacceptable, especially when we live in a world of plenty," said Jose Graziano da Silva, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
"Most of the progress in hunger reduction was made until 2006, as food price levels continued to decline. With the rise in food prices and the economic crisis that followed, there have been many fewer advances," he warned.
Food prices have been on an upward trend over the past few months, fueled by drought in the United States, Russia and other major exporters, and FAO expects prices to remain close to levels reached during the 2008 food crisis.
But Graziano da Silva said the world can still achieve the Millennium Development Goal to halve the prevalence of undernourishment in the developing world by 2015 if efforts are boosted to reverse the slowdown in progress.
The goal is one of a series of targets adopted by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000 to slash poverty, hunger and disease in poor countries by 2015
Broad-based economic recovery, especially in the agriculture sector, will be crucial for sustained hunger reduction, according to the report by FAO, the World Food Program (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
Employment for the poor
"Agricultural growth involving smallholders, especially women, will be most effective in reducing extreme poverty and hunger when it generates employment for the poor," the agencies said.
They said factors holding up progress include growing biofuel demand, financial speculation in food commodity markets and inefficiencies in food supply and distribution which lead to almost a third of total production being wasted.
FAO, WFP and IFAD define undernourishment, or hunger, in the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 (SOFI) report as "food intake that is insufficient to meet dietary energy requirements continuously".
The vast majority of people suffering hunger, 852 million, live in developing countries, where the prevalence of undernourishment is estimated at 14.9 percent, the report found.
In the past two decades hunger fell nearly 30 percent in Asia and the Pacific, thanks to socio-economic progress. Africa was the only region where the number of hungry grew over the period, to 239 million in 2010-12 from 175 million in 1990-92.
Analysts from FAO and WFP said the new figures followed adjustments to population size and human height estimates.
They also took into account a more detailed assessment of food availability and the amount of food wasted along the supply chain.
The new numbers suggest the impact of the 2008 economic crisis and the spike in international food prices had a less pronounced impact in many developing countries than was feared, the agencies said, with many governments succeeding in cushioning the shocks and protecting the most vulnerable.