As long as the world made headway in reducing the masses of hungry people, it was easy for wealthy nations to largely ignore World Food Day, which is observed every Oct. 16.
But not so this year.
Decades of progress in fighting hunger have come to a stomach-churning halt.
Last year, the proportion of people in poor countries who are malnourished suddenly rose after a long decline. And that surprise shift continued into 2009 with the number of chronically hungry people expected to top 1 billion this year – the highest level since 1970 – or about 100 million more than last year.
The easy explanation for this setback is that the world's poor have been whipsawed by two recent economic events:
First, there was a spike in global food prices in 2006-07, caused by rising oil costs and a push among rich nations for fuel made from grain. And then in 2008, there was a deep and long economic decline triggered by the US financial crisis.
As a result, some 30 countries now require emergency food aid.
But food shipments don't really begin to reverse a longer-term and more worrisome trend: a falloff in foreign aid for agricultural investment – especially at a time when climate change is taking a greater toll on farm crops.
The Green Revolution that began in the 1960s with new hybrid seeds in rice and wheat helped push more money into farming. The result was progress in reducing hunger until the early 1990s, when a world food summit declared the goal of slashing the number of hungry people in half by 2015.
That goal, however, has remained illusive as the need for investments has grown. The proportion of foreign aid going into third-world agriculture has dropped in the past three decades from 17 percent of all aid to 3.8 percent. Wealthier nations, it seems, have put their aid priorities elsewhere.
Now, says the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), poor countries need a yearly $44 billion in such aid, or more than five times current levels. The primary needs are farm mechanization and irrigation. And those investments are especially needed in order to raise food output for an expected rise in world population from 6.7 billion to 9.1 billion by 2050.
This investment crisis has set off alarm bells among world leaders, as it should. In 2003, African nations pledged to allocate 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture. Last month, the Group of 20 nations that represent the largest economies called on the World Bank to create a trust fund for agricultural investment in poor countries. And last July, the G20 pledged $20 million itself over several years to bolster food security.
Private groups, too, are focusing on the problem. The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are trying to trigger a second Green Revolution, focused on Africa (which seemed to miss the first one).
All this new activity calls for using this Friday's World Food Day to refocus attention on the 1 in 6 people who go to sleep each night with hunger pangs.
Only with continuing investment in better seeds, more water sources, advanced tools, and more farmland can the world see an end to hunger in this century.