There has been no improvement since last count in the rate of decline of the number of undernourished in the world: 826 million people still do not get enough to eat in a time of unprecedented plenty. This is the key message in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s annual report The State of Food Insecurity in the World (Sofi 2000) released today simultaneously in London, Rome, Washington, Nairobi, Bangkok, Berlin, Dublin and several other cities.

Current projections indicate that unless extra efforts are made to accelerate progress the 1996 World Food Summit goal of cutting the number of undernourished to 400 million by 2015 will not be achieved before 2030 – 15 years late. “Hungry people cannot wait another 15 years,” the SOFI report emphasizes.

According to FAO, the rate of decline in the number of hungry people — slightly fewer than 8 million per year during the 1990s — is woefully inadequate. A reduction of at least 20 million every year between now and 2015 is needed to realize the World Food Summit target. The lack of progress towards the eradication of hunger underlines “the urgency of immediate, determined and truly effective action,” the FAO report underlines.

The report carefully updates the estimate of the number of undernourished people around the world. For the period 1996-98, 792 million people in developing nations and another 34 million in industrialized countries and countries in transition were undernourished – essentially no change since 1995-97.

Hartwig de Haen, FAO’s Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social Department, said this year SOFI goes beyond estimating the number and prevalence of undernourished people. “It presents information on how hungry are the hungry and who are the hungry. Societies with a greater depth of hunger are also societies with a high infant mortality rate and significantly lower life expectancy.”

De Haen also said that SOFI 2000 moves beyond overall statistics by pinpointing more narrowly the specific groups who are vulnerable. For the first time, it presents indicators of the depth of people’s hunger and statistics on the number of hungry in the countries in transition. It also highlights the fact that women, because of their different physiology, are more subject to nutritional problems.

“This refining of information is an important tool for policy-makers. It will allow them to move forward in a more focused way, directing their actions and resources more precisely and effectively to the places where the need is greatest,” de Haen underlined.

The depth of hunger, or food deficit, is measured by comparing the average amount of dietary energy that undernourished people get from the foods they eat with the minimum amount of dietary energy they need to maintain body weight and undertake light activity.

Knowing the number of kilocalories missing from the diets of undernourished people helps round out the picture of food deprivation in a country. On average, the 826 million chronically hungry people worldwide lack 100-400 kilocalories per day, the FAO report says .

In addition to increasing susceptibility to disease, chronic hunger means that children may be listless and unable to concentrate in school, mothers may give birth to underweight babies and adults may lack the energy to fulfil their potential.

In terms of sheer numbers, there are more chronically hungry people in Asia, but the depth of hunger is clearly the greatest in sub-Saharan Africa. There, in 19 countries out of 46, the undernourished have an average deficit of more than 300 kilocalories per person per day. By contrast, in only 3 out of 19 countries in Asia do the undernourished suffer from average food deficits this high, according to SOFI.

The report introduces the concept of grouping the countries by degree of food deprivation. To get the most accurate picture possible of how hungry people are, FAO has combined the estimates of both prevalence and depth of hunger into five deprivation groups. The most deprived group includes 23 countries facing the most pressing and difficult problems in feeding their people. In addition to 18 African countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Haiti, Mongolia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are in this group.

“Lack of cash income is one of the most important factors hindering both urban and rural people from obtaining the diverse foods needed for an adequate diet. Even when poor rural families are helped to produce a greater variety of foods on their household plots, they will often sell these items rather than consume them because of their high market value.”

To defeat hunger, the FAO report emphasizes that investments will have to be made not only in productivity but also in people. Investing in people will need to come in the form of education, clean water and sanitation, health and social services and, in some cases, direct food and nutrition support.

Reducing hunger has not only a humanitarian justification, but also a strong economic rationale, as recent FAO sponsored research shows. “The economic cost of hunger and malnutrition, as reflected in lost productivity, illness and death, is extremely high,” the report emphasizes. For example, per capita GDP in sub-Saharan Africa could have reached levels of US$1 000 to US$3 500 by 1990 if undernourishment had been absent. Instead the region’s average GDP per capita in 1990 was just US$800.

According to FAO, four factors together offer possible solutions to hunger: – stable political conditions and institutions that build peace and offer a voice to all stakeholders; – increased investments for sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction; – social safety nets for the vulnerable groups; – agricultural research targeted towards improving agricultural commodity production.

According to the report, appropriately focused agricultural research helped reduce undernourishment substantially in a number of countries. It cites Ghana where farmers were able to exploit new market opportunities for cassava thanks to an aggressive cassava research and market promotion programme based on high-yielding varieties which had to be adapted to local climatic and soil conditions. Between 1990 and 1998, annual consumption of cassava in Ghana increased from 126 kg to 232 kg per capita.

Another success story is reported in Nigeria where the big jump in cassava production occurred between 1983 and 1992, when per capita consumption doubled – from 63 kg to 129 kg annually.

In Asia, Thailand’s successful fight against food insecurity is described by the FAO report as a model for long term community based action programmes. In this country, the incidence of poverty and malnutrition fell dramatically in the last two decades thanks to a poverty alleviation strategy focused on reducing malnutrition and supporting sustainable rural development. As a result, the percentage of people living in poverty fell from 32.6 percent in 1988 to 11.4 percent in 1996 and severe malnutrition amongst young children was eliminated.

A section of the report is dedicated to fisher folks in Benin as an example of vulnerable group profiling, which is a means of identifying who in a given population is hungry, why and, by implication, what can be done about it. “Determining the vulnerable groups in a country is a tool to help decision-makers direct interventions to people most vulnerable to food insecurity.”

“Women are often more vulnerable than men to malnutrition because of their different physiological requirements”, the FAO report indicates. “In most cases, a woman requires a higher intake of vitamins and minerals in proportion to total dietary energy intake than a man. When women are pregnant or lactating their foods need to be even richer in energy and nutrients.” Specific nutritional needs of all members of the households should be taken into account because many infant and young-child deaths in developing countries are attributable to the poor nutritional status of their mothers, the report adds.

Commenting on the way ahead, SOFI 2000 stresses the need to create the conditions that enable people to secure their right to adequate food. “The way forward will be long and challenging. However, progress can be achieved if individual countries and the international community act conscientiously on the commitments they made at the World Food Summit.”

An opportunity not to be lost is the recent initiative to strengthen debt relief taken by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other donors, which will release resources for development in many heavily indebted poor countries. “Debt relief can spur progress towards reducing hunger, provided the resources freed up are used, not only to feed the hungry now, but also to put countries and communities onto a longer-term path of sustainable development by investing in food security,” the FAO report underlines.