CONQUERING global hunger is a monumental challenge — but one that can be met: That was the message heard at the 38th U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) Conference held last week in Rome, Italy.
Notable leaders from around the globe discussed the causes of hunger and celebrated countries that have made progress toward eliminating hunger in recent years.
If the world wants to conquer hunger, leaders need to tackle all of the causes of food insecurity simultaneously, according to Noble laureate in economics Amartya Sen. Hunger is about more than food production, and addressing poverty will be key in feeding hungry people, he explained.
"The main factors behind the continuation of world hunger include the huge continuation of poverty, despite the increasing prosperity of the modern world in terms of averages and totals," he said. However, "poverty can be exacerbated by problems in the production side partly because food supply falling behind food demand tends to raise food prices, which can make many families much poorer, given their incomes."
Sen was among the first economists to assert that food production is not necessarily the root cause of food insecurity, pointing to the distribution of available food supplies as a major factor. His work on food access earned him the Nobel Prize in 1998.
Africa continues to be a major point of both concern and opportunity for food production. Delivering the McDougall Memorial Lecture, Sen noted that Africa is not experiencing steadily rising per capita food availability, as is the case in Asia.
In Africa, per capita food production in 2011 was only 4% higher than the 2004-06 average, and was actually 2% lower in 2010. He said African economies must become more diversified and industrialized to achieve better levels of food security.
During the conference, FAO released its 2013 statistical yearbook, shedding new light on agriculture's contributions to hunger and malnutrition as well as on other key issues such as global warming. The yearbook revealed that 12.5% of the world's population — some 870 million people — were undernourished in 2010-12.
Between 2005 and 2011, FAO said one in four African countries reported a stunting rate of at least 40%, with rates also exceeding 40% in South and Southeast Asia during the same period.
African countries also had the highest rates of underweight prevalence. During the reference period, 16 countries showed underweight rates of at least 20%.
Illustrating one of Sen's points, FAO statistics showed that global crop production has expanded threefold over the past 50 years, largely through higher yields per unit of land farmed. The global per capita food supply increased from 2,200 kcal per day in the early 1960s to more than 2,800 kcal per day by 2009.
Cereals now occupy more than half of the world's harvested area, and FAO said they are the most important food source. Of the 2.3 billion metric tons produced annually, 1 billion are used for human consumption, while 750 million are used as animal feed. (The remainder is used in seed and industrial applications or is lost as waste).
While discussing the scope and severity of the global hunger problem, FAO leaders also provided evidence that hunger can, in fact, be eliminated. FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva formally recognized 38 member countries for reducing hunger by half, a goal the organization pledged to accomplish by 2015.
Eighteen countries were recognized for meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of hungry people by 2015 and for meeting the World Food Summit goal of halving the absolute number of hungry people by 2015. Twenty additional countries were celebrated for achieving the MDG alone.
The World Food Summit goal was set by 180 FAO nations in 1996, while the MDG was established by the U.N. General Assembly in 2000.
"To each and every one of you, I want say that you are living proof that when societies decide to put an end to hunger, and when there is political commitment from governments, we can transform that will into concrete action and results," Graziano da Silva said. "FAO is proud to work with all our member nations to reach our common vision of a hunger-free and sustainable world."