UN: Fewer hungry people
Rome - The number of chronically hungry people in the world dipped considerably below the 1 billion mark - the first drop in 15 years - thanks partly to a fall in food prices after spikes that sparked rioting a few years ago, UN agencies said on Tuesday.
Still, an estimated 925 million people are undernourished worldwide, and the latest figures don't reflect the repercussions from the massive flooding in Pakistan.
The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) report suggested some progress in the battle to end hunger, but stressed the world is far from achieving the UN-promoted Millennium Development Goal of reducing the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries to 10% by 2015.
The report estimated there are 98 million fewer chronically hungry people than in 2009, when the figure just topped 1 billion.
That's partly because food prices have fallen from the peaks in 2007-2008, when they sparked violence in several developing countries, and because cereal and rice harvests have been strong.
Cereal production this year was the third-highest ever recorded, despite a drought-fuelled wheat shortfall in Russia, said FAO director-general Jacques Diouf.
Also heartening, Diouf noted, is that cereal stocks are high - about 100 million tons more than the low levels of 2007-2008, when some 38 countries shut down their food export markets in reaction.
Increased demand for biofuels and soaring petroleum prices took much of the blame for the spiralling upward prices then.
Food prices are still "stubbornly" high, but "we haven't seen the type of behaviour... panic buying" that helped feed the speculation and fears of a couple of years ago, said Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
Earlier this month, a UN human rights expert urged governments to crack down on price speculation and boost food production.
Deadly riots over food prices hit Mozambique recently, and the FAO has called a special meeting for September 24 to discuss recently rising food prices.
The drop below the 1 billion mark also reflects progress China and India have made in feeding their own.
Still, those two nations, with their huge populations, account for 40% of the world's undernourished people. Overall, two-thirds of the chronically undernourished live in either China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or Ethiopia, the report said.
The flooding in Pakistan is also a variable that could affect future numbers. The floods have affected millions and robbed farmers of crops about to be harvested, next season's farmland and much seed.
While welcoming the dip in the number of hungry, the non-governmental aid agency Oxfam attributed the improvement largely "to luck" and not to a change in policies or increased investment "needed to address the underlying causes in hunger".
The UN promoted Millennium Development Goal is to halve the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries from 20% in 1990-92 to 10% in 2015.
FAO estimates the proportion of the hungry would have been reduced to 16% by this year.
"There simply isn't enough agriculture investment today," said Yukiko Omura, deputy president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a UN agency that emphasises helping small-scale farming in developing countries.
FAO's Diouf noted that only a small fraction - $420m - of the $20bn in agricultural development assistance pledged by the 2009 Group of Eight developed nations summit and $2bn more from a later G-20 meeting has materialised.