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Global hunger has fallen, U.N. agency says after revising numbers

October 9, 2012 |  1:12 pm

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Three years after the United Nations grabbed headlines with the stunning announcement that more than 1 billion people could be going hungry across the globe, it now says that estimate was wrong and hunger has actually dropped.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says hunger did not skyrocket as it had believed three years ago, when world leaders fretted about the double threat of increasing food prices and the economic downturn swamping the globe. The global economic slump did not hit food markets as hard as feared, as governments cushioned the blow to the poor, it said.

Using a new method, the Food and Agriculture Organization recalculated all of its hunger figures back to 1990 and uncovered the more encouraging trend. It now pegs the number of undernourished people worldwide at nearly 870 million and says the number was not much different three years ago. Flawed data were behind the error, the U.N. told reporters Tuesday as it unveiled the new estimate in Rome.

The new information shows that global goals for cutting hunger are within reach if countries continue to take action, the agency says. The U.N. and other international groups have aimed to cut the global hunger rate in half between 1990 and 2015, whittling down the rate to 10% in developing countries.

If numbers continue to dwindle at a historic  pace, the hunger rate in the developing world could fall to 12.5% in three years, the U.N. predicted, still above the 10% target.

Hunger rates have fallen the most in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, according to the new report. In Vietnam, which made some of the biggest strides worldwide, the percentage of undernourished people has plunged from nearly half the population to less than a tenth. The Caribbean also reduced hunger, with heartening improvements seen in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, according to the report.

But the U.N. agency cautioned that most of the global progress was made in the earlier years of the plan. In the last four years, hunger appears to have stagnated, with rates rising in the poorest countries.

Hunger is again increasing in much of Africa, with recent rises seen in Uganda, Sudan and Tanzania. It has also gone on the upswing in parts of the Middle East, including Yemen and the Palestinian territories. Even in Asia, progress is uneven. Hunger rates surged in East Timor, for example, reaching a rate of 38.2% after hitting a low of 26.6% nine years ago, according to the new U.N. data.

Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva said it was still troubling that anyone could go hungry in a world of plenty.

“The only acceptable number for hunger is zero,” Graziano da Silva said Tuesday.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva, foreground, International Fund for Agricultural Development Chief Development Strategist Carlos Sere, left, and World Food Program director Valerie Guarnieri meet journalists in Rome. Credit:  Domenico Stinellis / Associated Press

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