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Report: Fewer people in the world are malnourished

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the number of chronically undernourished dropped from 18.7 percent of the total population to 11.3 between 1990 and 2014. More than 60 developing nations have halved the number of undernourished people in their populations since 1990.

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People eat at a popular restaurant sponsored by the Brazilian government in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Andre Penner/AP

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Fewer people in the world are going hungry, as the number of chronically undernourished dropped from 18.7 percent of the total population to 11.3 percent between 1990 and 2014.

A report released in September by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that 209 million people who faced hunger by that definition nearly 25 years ago no longer do today, owing to increased commitment by political bodies, agricultural leaders, and nonstate actors.  

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“But there’s still an awful lot of work to do,” says Steve Taravella, senior spokesman for the World Food Program (WFP). “There are still people who go to bed every day not knowing where their next meal is going to come from.” 

The WFP contributed research to the FAO report, which found that while much progress has been made to ensure that more people in the world are well nourished, there are still 805 million people in the world going hungry.

Over the past two decades, however, dozens of developing nations have shown their potential to eliminate hunger. China, for example, a country that used to heavily rely on aid from international advocacy groups including the WFP to feed its millions of starving citizens, reduced the number of its undernourished people by 138 million since 1990. China’s success is attributed to its rapid economic development and efforts to boost agricultural growth. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, China has not only launched agricultural programs that increase its production of staple crops such as rice and corn, but also programs that aim to improve the nutritional value of these crops in order to fight malnutrition.

A political initiative in Indonesia to institutionalize food as a human right has brought the nation’s undernourished population down by more than 10 percent. In addition, the nation has increased its fertilizer and seed subsidies for farmers and food subsidies for the poor to improve food security.

Brazil has also put fighting hunger at the center of its political agenda. Its Zero Hunger Program prioritizes food security by encouraging high annual income growth among the poorest families in its population. Between 2001 and 2012 the annual income growth for the poorest 20 percent of Brazilian families was more than 6 percent per year, making food more affordable throughout the country.

A total of 63 developing nations, including Brazil, have halved the number of undernourished people in their populations since 1990. The progress of these nations makes the FAO hopeful that the UN will be able to see its first Millennium Development Goal – to halve the number of undernourished people in all developed countries by 2015 – come to fruition.

“These efforts are bringing the goal of achieving food security in our lifetime closer to reality,” José Graziano da Silva, the FAO’s director general, said in the report.

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The FAO also recently reported that, according to UN data, global food prices are the lowest they have been in four years. Favorable weather has led to bountiful harvests in Europe, North America, and Asia, and major food commodities including grains, vegetable oils, sugar, and dairy are now as cheap as they were in 2010 before a series of price peaks. Grains are now half as expensive as they were in 2012; dairy prices are 20 percent lower than they were a year ago.

“Whenever food prices come down, people’s access to food and especially nutritious food increases,” says the WFP’s Mr. Taravella.

Taravella also noted that in areas of the world plagued by conflict, the number of malnourished people has grown or stayed the same. In sub-Saharan Africa, which has experienced violence and natural disasters over the past two decades, 1 in 4 people remains hungry. In Syria, which has been afflicted by terrorism and civil war, 85 percent of refugee families do not have the resources to feed themselves. Funding for groups such as the WFP, which is currently providing food for 6 million Syrians, is now dwindling.

Taravella calls violence the largest hurdle facing the end of global hunger.

“One of the biggest things is finding political will,” he says. “If we can reduce conflict in regions that are defined by conflict right now we can reduce hunger. Those conflicts are really preventing people from accessing food safely.”