PARIS - The number of hungry people in the world could soon hit a record one billion, despite a recent drop in food prices, the UN food aid organization said Wednesday.
The recent financial crisis, though it has helped bring global food prices down, also has led to falling trade and lower development aid, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization's general director, Jacques Diouf.
As a result of the crisis, an additional 104 million people were likely to go hungry this year - meaning they receive fewer than 1,800 calories a day, Diouf told reporters after a two-day meeting in Paris between the FAO and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
''We have never seen so many hungry people in the world,'' Diouf said.
The number of people considered hungry increased last year as well, by 40 million, and in 2007, when 75 million more people joined the ranks, Diouf said.
If the projection for 2009 proves accurate, that would mean that approximately one billion people - or roughly one-sixth of the world's population - will go hungry by the end of the year, he said.
''Food security is a matter of peace and security in the world,'' he said, stressing that the food production will have to double by 2050 just to keep pace with population growth.
Despite a 30 per cent drop in food prices from June 2008, overall food prices still remain above 2006 levels, Diouf said. In the developing world, however, food prices have dropped only 12-14 per cent since June 2008, he said.
Surveys show that prices of basic staple foods in many poor countries have barely registered any drop.
Higher food prices spurred a 12-13 per cent increase in production in wealthy countries. But developing countries - excluding giants such as China, Brazil and India - have only seen a 0.4 per cent rise in food production, ''which is totally offset by the increase in population,'' Diouf said.
Systemic problems - such as weak infrastructure and dependence on rain - are to blame for poor countries' near-stagnant production. Bad roads in rural areas, lack of proper food storage facilities and a lack of irrigation infrastructure continue to keep farmers in poor countries from producing more, Diouf said.
He and other experts at Wednesday's conference called a greater percentage of development aid to poor countries to be spent on agriculture.
Following the so-called Green Revolution of the 1970s - during which crop yields and food production skyrocketed - aid money spent on agriculture has dwindled from 17 per cent of total aid to just three per cent.
''There is no way we will solve the problem of food security in the world if we stay in this situation,'' Diouf said, adding ''we need to go back to 17 per cent'' of development aid earmarked for agriculture.
Only such a dramatic increase will prevent acute food shortages in the future, he warned.