Big investments needed to halt new Asia food crisis: UN

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Nearly 650 million Asians are suffering from hunger and the situation will continue to worsen unless spending on the farm sector is dramatically increased, United Nations food experts warned Wednesday.

Although food prices have dropped since the height of the global food crisis in 2008, the problem of malnourishment is worsening and governments are not investing enough in agriculture, they warned.

Over 60 million Asians became malnourished last year, raising the regional total to 642 million, Jacques Diouf, head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, told an international food security conference in Manila.

"The sheer magnitude of food insecurity is the result of the low priority that has been given to agriculture in economic development policies," Diouf said in a video address to the conference.

Food prices in Asia remain between 20 and 30 percent higher than 2007 levels, FAO Asia Pacific director Hiroyuki Konuma told reporters on the sidelines of the conference.

The world as a whole needs annual farm investments of 200 billion dollars over the next 40 years to feed the world's human population, which is expected to grow to 9.1 billion by 2050, Konuma said.

In Asia alone, 120 billion dollars are needed every year, according to Konuma.

"We have a shortfall of 40 billion dollars for this region," he said.

Konuma said governments had been lulled into complacency by farm-yield breakthroughs from the 1960s that gave rise to the "Green Revolution" and raised farm outputs three-fold, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

But he said in the decade leading to the 2007-2008 global food crisis, annual output growth around the world stagnated for rice and wheat - two of the most important cereals.

"We have to triple the pace of production (for rice and wheat) in the next 20 years," Konuma said.

Asian Development Bank president Haruhiko Kuroda, the forum's host, said global food prices were still 85 percent higher than 2003 levels.

More than 25 percent of Asian children aged five or younger are moderately to severely underweight, more than a third are moderately or severely stunted, and 18 percent of infants are born with a low birth weight, he said.

"These statistics belie a crisis that will only get worse in the years to come unless immediate action is taken," he said.

"Add to this rapid population growth, climate change and water shortages, and the need for action is blindingly apparent."