Global hunger declines for first time in 15 years

The number of undernourished people around the world has declined by nearly 10 percent in the past year, the first time a drop in famine has been recorded since 1995, the UN food agency said Tuesday.

A total of 925 million people are undernourished in 2010 compared with 1.023 billion last year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a hunger report, revealing a drop of 9.6 percent.

However "the number of undernourished people in the world remains unacceptably high," the FAO said.

Some 98 percent of the world's undernourished people live in developing countries - over 40 percent in China and India alone.

Recent food crises have hit Niger in West Africa, where seven million people suffered from food shortages following a major shortfall in the latest crop harvest.

In Pakistan farmers are in desperate need of wheat seeds for the next sowing season after floods devastated much of the country's farmland and seed stock.

The FAO said the decline could be explained mostly by a more favourable economic environment in 2010, particularly in developing countries, as well as a drop in both international and domestic food prices since 2008.

However, "the fact that nearly a billion people remain hungry, even after the recent food and financial crises have largely passed, indicates a deeper structural problem," it said.

Leading global aid agencies and charities were reserved in their response to the report, warning that there was still much work to be done to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving world famine by 2015.

"This is hardly time for celebration. Hunger is still no better than it was before the global food crisis and the goal to halve hunger is decades off track," ActionAid's head of policy Meredith Alexander said.

"As the spectre of the global economic crisis continues to loom large, governments must remember it is 10 times cheaper to halve hunger than ignore it," she added.

For global aid agency Oxfam, the decline in famine numbers was due to "luck". "We know it is possible" to achieve the Millennium Development Goal for halving famine, Oxfam said, but "political will is the only element missing."

In the hunger report, the FAO urged governments to "encourage increased investment in agriculture, expand safety nets and social assistance programmes, and enhance income-generating activities for the rural and urban poor."

Analysis of hunger during financial crisis and recovery also brought to the fore the insufficient resilience to economic shocks of many poor countries and households, the FAO warned.

"Lack of appropriate mechanisms to deal with the shocks or to protect the most vulnerable populations from their effects result in large swings in hunger following crises," it said.

When the crisis is over there should be no relaxation in the fight against famine, the FAO urged.

"Vulnerable households may deal with shocks by selling assets, which are very difficult to rebuild, by reducing food consumption in terms of quantity and variety, and by cutting down on health and education expenditures," it said.

These coping mechanisms "all have long-term negative effects on the quality of life and livelihoods," the FAO said.

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