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A child reaches into a bucket containing food
Can the international community meet UN hunger reduction targets by the 2015 deadline?Image: dpa

1 billion hungry?

October 11, 2011

The United Nations say massive fluctuations in the price of food have heightened the hunger crisis in developing countries, particularly in Africa. The latest UN report shows that the situation is getting worse.


When the prices of foodstuffs reach record highs, more people go hungry - but on financial markets, food is considered a commodity like any other. Investors can put their money in agricultural products like corn and wheat as they do other stocks - and buy and sell depending on the share price.

Farmers in the field in Malawi
The FAO is calling for improved access to animal feed and seeds for farmersImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Yet the volatility of food prices on international markets plays a major role in food insecurity around the world. That problem is intensifying, according to this year's World Hunger Report, released Monday in Rome by three UN agencies.

About 925 million people around the world were suffering from malnutrition last year - some 75 million more than in 2008. Josef Schmidhuber from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one of the agencies involved in the UN's 2011 report, said the prices of foodstuffs have risen dramatically on financial markets in the past four years.

"Food is more expensive," he said. "At the moment, we have no reason to think that will change in the medium term."

Little left to spend

Nevertheless, the trend has done little to shake consumer confidence in Western Europe and the United States; in Germany, the average household spends just 11 to 17 percent of its income on food. By contrast, that figure lies between 70 and 90 percent for people living in many African and Asian countries.

"Major price swings lead to high prices," Schmidhuber said. "In addition, price fluctuations have dramatic consequences for the poorest of the poor, because there's a greater risk that they'll fall into poverty and ultimately lose the few assets they have."

Bags of grains
Volatility in the food market is a major concernImage: Babou Diallo

"It could prevent them from ever escaping the trap of poverty," he added.

The UN's Millennium Development Goals list the reduction of world hunger as a key target. By 2015, the international community should aim to slash hunger rates by half, from 16 to 8 percent. That would mean reducing the number of people currently suffering from hunger - about 1 billion - to some 600 million over the next four years.

But Schmidhuber is skeptical that those targets can be met. With 13 percent of the global population now suffering from hunger, "we still have a way to go to get to 8 percent," he said.

"In light of recent events, there's no reason to assume that we'll reach the Millennium Goal."

Call for action

In the short term, tackling hunger is both a question of supply and affordability. The FAO has called for the implementation of safety nets to protect people against major fluctuations in the price of foodstuffs. The agency also supports providing farmers with better access to seed and animal feed.

Somalis stand in line to receive aid at a refugee camp in Mogadishu in 2011
Drought in the Horn of Africa sparked a major food crisisImage: AP

In times of crisis, consumer protections should be available in the form of short-term food aid that can be distributed quickly. Moreover, measures should be taken to reduce food waste - a problem that is not only common in industrialized nations.

"It happens in poorer countries, too, because there are relatively few ways to preserve food for longer periods of time," Schmidhuber said. "There's a shortage of storage options."

The current hunger crisis has been most visible in East Africa. The UN said some 750,000 people in Somalia alone are at risk of dying from starvation in the coming months. Hunger is also a major problem in neighboring countries, from Ethiopia to Kenya.

Author: Tilmann Kleinjung (arp)
Editor: Nina Haase

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