Prices of agricultural commodities such as wheat, corn and rice jumped to record levels earlier this year, triggering food riots in countries ranging from Haiti to Egypt to Bangladesh and prompting appeals for food aid for more than 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Although food commodity prices have fallen about 50 per cent from this summer’s all-time highs, they remain well above pre-crisis levels. The cost of rice, for example, has halved since July, but it still trades at prices that are 95 per cent above 2005 levels. In addition, the weakening of some emerging countries’ currencies against the US dollar has partially erased gains from the drop in commodity prices.
The new FAO estimates also show the food crisis has thrown into reverse a decline over a quarter-century in the proportion of undernourished people as a percentage of the world’s population. The percentage has risen now to about 17 per cent, up from a record low of 16 per cent in 2003-05 period, but still below the 20 per cent of 1990-92. “Soaring food prices have reversed some of the gain and successes in hunger reduction, making the mission of achieving the internationally agreed goal on hunger reduction more difficult,” the FAO said.
Almost a decade ago, world leaders agreed in New York to the UN Millennium Development Goals, calling among other targets for a halving between 1990 and 2015 in the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. Jacques Diouf, FAO director-general, said in a foreword for the report that the task of achieving the UN’s hunger reduction targets in the remaining several years to 2015 will “require an enormous and resolute global effort and concrete actions”.
However, with leaders’ attention firmly focused on the global financial crisis and its economic ramifications, many observers now believe that the hunger and poverty reduction targets are no longer achievable by 2015. The vast majority of the world’s undernourished people – more than 90m – live in developing countries, according to FAO estimates. Of these, 65 per cent live in only seven countries: India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in three people – or almost 240m – are chronically hungry, the highest proportion of undernourished people in the total population.
By Javier Blas
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