The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is urging countries to seriously tackle the issue of agricultural reforms, as they head to Hong Kong for major trade talks. The FAO issued its annual 2005 State of Food and Agriculture Report, which focuses on agricultural trade and poverty.
Of the 1.2 billion people in the world estimated to be living in extreme poverty, on less than $1 a day, a large majority are perpetually hungry, the FAO report says.
"There are 852 million people in the world who are chronically undernourished," said FAO North America director Charles Riemenschneider. "Hunger is both the severest manifestation of poverty and a leading cause of poverty because hungry people can't learn or earn their way out of poverty, and they don't make very productive workers."
Mr. Riemenschneider answered the report's main question, "Can trade work for the poor?" by acknowledging that the biggest immediate beneficiaries of any agricultural trade reforms would be the wealthier, industrialized countries.
But at the same time, he said developing countries could protect themselves from being too negatively affected by the reforms if they take internal steps to improve their own conditions.
"From the report, it's clear that agriculture, trade and further trade liberalization can be pro-poor, but positive outcomes are not guaranteed for everyone," he explained. "For many developing countries, targeted investments and complementary policies are required, along with trade liberalization."
The FAO report points to the Asia-Pacific region as the relative success story in reducing hunger. Mr. Riemenschneider says this is because Asian governments have been investing in agricultural development and rural infrastructure.
"They've used modern technology, better plant varieties, they have access to better fertilizer. All of those type of things will be important," he added.
By comparison, he says, the number of hungry people in Africa has actually increased. He said one agricultural advantage Asia has over Africa is more widespread irrigation.
"In Africa, only four percent of the land is irrigated," he noted. "In Asia, it's closer to 40 percent. So, if you're worrying about the weather, you can use the best seeds and fertilizer in the world, and if it doesn't rain, you're still not going to get a crop."
In its Millenium Development Goal, the United Nations aims to cut the percentage of hungry people in the world by half, from 20 percent of the world's population in 1990 to 10 percent by 2015.
The FAO says in terms of reaching that goal, recent projections show the world is heading in the right direction.