After declining for years, the number of people in the world who are going hungry is on the rise, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization stated in its annual hunger report.
Throughout the first half of the 1990s, hunger fell steadily, according to the report. The number of hungry people in developing countries declined by 37 million during the first half of the 1990s but increased by 18 million in the second half.
The FAO estimates in its fifth annual report on ''The State of Food Insecurity in the World'' that 842 million people were undernourished in 1999-2001, the most recent years for which data are available.
This is not the famine-type hunger associated with drought, telethons and world-broadcast rock concerts. It's a diet that routinely supplies 1,400 to 1,700 calories a day. Several U.N. agencies say 2,300 calories is the minimum needed for a healthy life.
''The degree to which they are suffering from hunger is unimaginable to those of us in affluent countries,'' says Hartwig de Haen, FAO assistant director.
Nineteen countries, including China, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Peru, Brazil, Ghana and Namibia, succeeded in reducing the number of undernourished people throughout the 1990s, the report says.
But in 26 countries, including Afghanistan, Congo, Yemen, the Philippines, Liberia, Kenya and Iraq, the number of undernourished people went up.
Hunger very seldom happens because of lack of food, according to the report.
''There is enough food available in world markets and even often in countries, but people who are affected by hunger don't have access to it, either through income and purchasing power or through access to land and water,'' de Haen says.
Hunger doesn't just result from poverty but is also often its principle cause, the report says.
For example, poor children are often poorly fed children. This can lead to mental retardation and stunted growth, so when the child is grown he will be less able to work and feed himself.
Hungry children are also less likely to be schooled, making higher-paid work less possible. And hungry adults often can't find jobs and can't get higher wages to buy more food, de Haen says.
Roughly 60% of food emergencies, such as famine, stem from natural disasters, and 40% come from human-induced ones such as civil war, governmental collapse or financial crises.
The good news is that there is a better sense today of what it takes to end hunger. Among the practices being used to help the hungry include focusing on economic and agricultural growth, lowering population growth, lowering HIV infection rates, improving access to water for irrigation and creating social safety nets to ensure that those who can't grow or buy food still get enough to eat.
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