THE percentage of hungry people in the developing world has decreased substantially in the last 20 years, but the problem remains large, according to an analysis released yesterday by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Developing countries still hold 786 million chronically undernourished people, down from 941 million two decades ago. This represents a drop from 36 percent of the population of these countries to 20 percent.
The progress is remarkable in that world population increased by 1.8 billion during that time.
One reason for the improvement is strong gains in agricultural productivity in Asia, where half the world's population lives, says John Lupien, director of the FAO's food policy and nutrition division. China in particular has made strong progress, but in Africa the problem is getting worse, Dr. Lupien says.
Farming in Somalia and Sudan has been disrupted by civil conflicts, while Southern Africa has been hit with a severe drought.
"There really is enough food" to feed everyone who is now going hungry, Lupien told the Monitor in an interview. The big challenge is low income, which hampers the ability of millions of people to buy the food they need.
"The underlying problems of poverty must be uprooted with programs to increase employment, incomes, and food production," said FAO director-general Edouard Saouma in releasing the report.
Lupien says this can be done through continued expansion of the farm sector, which will boost employment and incomes as well as food production.
Among other needed steps, he says, are:
* Development of small-scale industry to process and preserve food better.
* Reduction of trade barriers. If world trade talks succeed in cutting subsidies in industrialized nations, the farm sector in developing countries would become more competitive. Many African nations now find it cheaper to import food than to grow it.
* Better pest-management to increase crop yields sharply in some areas.
The people most vulnerable to malnutrition are landless rural families, the report says.
Most developing nations, Lupien says, are "moving toward wide-open market economies" often at the urging of the International Monetary Fund, which provides development loans.
"This is not always to the benefit of poorest people," he says, because food prices sometimes rise.
One positive development, he says, is that "developing countries have improved their food storage quite a bit," helping to create a buffer against crop failures.
Despite the progress in Asia, that continent has the largest number of undernourished people, Lupien notes. But he says there is hope that crop yields can continue to improve. In the last two decades the "green revolution," introduced better genetic grains and has boosted output dramatically in many areas.
Lupien says there is "a lot of leeway" for more gains.