The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization says armed conflicts are now the leading cause of hunger. The agency, which opened a four-day meeting of its committee on world food security, says much still needs to be done in the fight to reduce world hunger. The hardest hit continent is Africa.

The FAO says there are more conflicts in the world and consequently more food emergencies. It added that armed conflicts are now the leading cause of world hunger, followed by AIDS and climate change.

Details of the situation were presented in a report by the Committee on World Food Security, which opened its 31st session Monday at U.N. food agency headquarters in Rome.

FAO Director General Dr. Jacques Diouf said in opening remarks that the assessment of the world food security situation shows there is still a long way to go.

"It is with great regret that more than eight years after the world food summit I still have to report that we have not progressed enough towards the world food summit objectives," Dr. Diouf says.

International delegates attending the World Food Summit in 1996 agreed on the goal to reduce the number of hungry people in the world by half by the year 2015.

The FAO report noted that the impact of wars is not limited to the conflict area. It diverts resources from national development programs. It often affects neighbouring countries due to the influx of refugees. It also contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS through displacement, rape or commercial sex.

But Dr. Diouf said there have been some positive results.

"More than 30 developing countries with a total population of over two-point-two-billion people have reduced the prevalence of under nourishment by 25 percent," he says.

These countries, the FAO director general added, show that rapid progress is possible and give us reason for hope. He added that one cannot forget that a large number have seen no progress at all and even a worsening of the situation and insisted more can be done to reduce hunger and under nourishment.

"The urgent measures that need to be taken at the international level include creation of a fair and equitable international trading environment, reduction and cancellation of the debt burden of the poorest development countries and enhancing international development assistance," Dr. Diouf says.

The continent that is hardest hit by hunger is Africa, with 23 out of 36 nations facing serious food shortages. The Food and Agricultural Organization realizes it will not be able to resolve the problem of reaching its objectives in sub-Saharan Africa. But if efforts are stepped up, it is convinced the goal of cutting the proportion of hungry and poor can be achieved in most regions of the world.