Only in recent history have entire societies been able to rise above chronic hunger and the constant threat of famine. Even with that success, many countries in Africa and South Asia continue to struggle with the problem. Technological advancements have helped to improve agriculture production.
But the cost of food remains perhaps the biggest obstacle to feeding the hungry. The United Nations says the global population is projected to increase by 47-percent over a 50-year period, from 6.1 billion in 2000 to 8.9 billion in 2050.
Joachim von Braun, the director of the Center for Development Research at University of Bonn, says with an increased demand for food, and increased prices. "Each year, except one year, the international food price has been higher than the year before," he said. "So, the world food situation has become stressed. And, the poor of the world in Asia and Africa have been particularly adversely affected."
"On this World Food Day (Saturday, October 16), we should remember that a billion people are undernourished, and that 60-percent of that one-billion live in Asia, and the Asian food problem is predominantly also a problem of undernourishment of children," von Braun said.
The recent global economic downturn has affected nearly every market, including food. The instability on food prices in many parts of the world has complicated addressing hunger issues. Katsuji Matsunami is an advisor/practice leader on Agriculture, Food Security and Rural Development with the Asian Development Bank's Regional Sustainable Development Department.
"In the short term, market volatility goes on," Matsunami said. "And, there is a very strong likelihood that some unexpected volatility and a price hike could happen. In long term, as we all know the population keeps on increasing. And, the dietary habits, or the consumer demands for food, is also changing," he said.
Matsunami said achieving the goal of growing more food is not simple and requires continuous investment. "The world needs to produce more food, more feed and more fuel because of the climate change concerns," he said. "So, agriculture has to produce more. But, the resources needed to do that is limited, particularly water. And, investment needed for agriculture modernization is not flowing in as we hoped for."
While the global economic slowdown has had an impact on investment in agriculture, Joachim von Braun says there are some recent developments which give hope to improving world hunger.
"In the last three years, good things have happened. Developing countries have invested more in agriculture and have put agriculture higher on the agenda," he said. "India, for instance, has launched, two years ago, a $6-billion program. China has invested a lot more. And, at least 20 countries in Africa have done so, too. And, the development community, such as the United States with their Feed the Future program (through USAID), have also reactivated investment in agriculture with a focus on small farmers," said von Braun.
Katsuji Matsunami hopes that programs can be expanded to regional discussions and plans, especially in Asia.
"Can the ASEAN, plus three countries, come to sit down at the table and openly talk about the prospects of rice. Who might need rice, how much, and who might have a marketable surplus of rice? This kind of talk is not going on. These are all bilateral, government to government. And, we are asking, could this be possible to make it into the regional framework?" said Matsunami.
He says the regional approach to providing enough food is critical, as urban areas continue to grow at astonishing rates in Asia. "Governments will have to make (it so) that these large numbers of small farmers will have some means to live," Matsunami added.
"At the same time, there are increasing populations, and the major part of it, poorer still, in cities, and that they need cheap food. So, on one hand, they have to make sure the farmers get a proper price, and high enough so that farmers are interested and (are) able to survive out of rice production. But, by bringing rice in to the consumer place, that should be cheap enough for the poor consumers to buy," he said.
The shortage of food has been linked to other needs such as better infrastructure, water and technology, which can help lower production costs and bring more food to the market at lower prices, while maintaining incomes for farmers.
Joachim von Braun says government projects have shown tangible results in parts of Asia. "Vietnam has been particularly successful in addressing hunger and food and nutrition insecurity. It is really, next to China, a shining example of progress in fighting hunger," he said.
Von Braun has suggested two global collective actions to help prevent another food price crisis as seen in 2007-2008. He says a small physical food reserve should be established to facilitate a smooth response to food emergencies. Second, an innovative virtual reserve should be set up to help prevent market price spikes.