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Fight to End World Hunger Could Still be Lost, says FAO

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says there's growing evidence that the fight against world hunger could be lost. It estimates nearly one billion people worldwide suffer from hunger and malnutrition compared with 825 million about 10 years ago.

Experts from the FAO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development open a two-day meeting in Paris Tuesday to discuss the problem. Joseph Schmidhuber, head of the FAO's Global Perspectives Unit, spoke from Rome about the growing number of people labeled as hungry or malnourished.

"We've seen first a stagnation in the number of under nourished people and then actually we saw quite an increase. And we expect a further increase due to the financial and economic crisis. The first increase was essentially an increase that reduced implicit incomes through higher food prices and the second one is an increase that will reduce explicit incomes and purchasing power through the financial and economic crisis," he says.

The Paris meeting will look for long-term solutions. "The meeting will focus on investing in agriculture and food security. What we sense now is an urgent need to step up investment in agriculture in order to avoid the situation as we had in the early 1980s," he says.

The economic crisis of the 1980s, triggered in part by a debt crisis, brought a sharp downturn in investment in agriculture. Schmidhuber says that resulted in "a reduction of production and stagnation in the fight against hunger."

Last June, in Rome, international donors held an emergency meeting in Rome on soaring food prices and widespread food shortages. Asked whether anything substantial has come from that meeting, he says, "What we've seen is actually that international prices went down considerably. There's no doubt about that." However, what did not happen in many countries was an equal decline in national prices. In fact, in some cases food prices actually rose.

"One of the problems we see as an organization is that we saw enormous pledges in 2008 in the meeting…but there was relatively little follow-up in terms of actual investment. So, we saw pledges to the tune of $26 billion and we saw…actual money coming forward to the tune of $2 billion."

Will the Paris meeting be any different? Schmidhuber says, "We don't expect that to bring about the big action. But we think it's a very important stepping stone towards a world food summit that we will hopefully have in November 2009. And now we gradually want to prepare that process and one of the stepping stones…will be this meeting in Paris."

In warning about the growing hunger problem, the FAO says there are about a dozen so-called "left behind" countries.

"There are a number of countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and also in South Asia, that have not made progress…in terms of fighting hunger. At the same time, these are countries with still very high population growth rates… They have relatively limited agricultural resources, limited land. And they've exhausted much of the land. They have very limited non-agricultural resources. And therefore, we don't see much possibility for them to get out of the doldrums unless there is much more investment and much more investment in productivity," he says.

These countries include Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.