ROME - The global financial meltdown has pushed the ranks of the world's hungry to a record one billion, a milestone that poses a threat to peace and security, U.N. food officials said yesterday.
Because of war, drought, political instability, high food prices, and poverty, hunger now affects one in six people, by the United Nations' estimate.
The financial meltdown has compounded the crisis in what the head of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization called a "devastating combination for the world's most vulnerable."
Compared with last year, there are 100 million more people who are hungry, meaning they consume fewer than 1,800 calories a day, the agency said.
"No part of the world is immune," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said. "All world regions have been affected by the rise of food insecurity."
The crisis is a humanitarian one, but also a political issue.
Officials presenting the new estimates in Rome sought to stress the link between hunger and instability, noting that soaring prices for staples, such as rice, triggered riots in the developing world last year.
Josette Sheeran of the World Food Program, another U.N. food agency based in Rome, said hungry people rioted in at least 30 countries last year. Most notably, soaring food prices led to deadly riots in Haiti and the overthrow of the prime minister.
"A hungry world is a dangerous world," Sheeran said. "Without food, people have only three options: They riot, they emigrate, or they die. None of these are acceptable options."
Even though prices have retreated from their mid-2008 highs, they are still "stubbornly high" in some domestic markets, according to the FAO. On average, food prices were 24 percent higher in real terms at the end of 2008 compared with 2006, it said.
"Malnutrition kills through the fact that it weakens the immune system of a child," said Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu, a Kenya-based spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in East Africa. Some 22 million of the one billion hungry people counted by the United Nations are in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, he said.
Engstrand-Neacsu said he had just returned from a corner of southern Ethiopia on the Kenyan border where the food situation is dire, and had been speaking to a family who lost a child to malaria in February. The parents said they were told he could not be saved because he was malnourished.
Engstrand-Neacsu called on donors to act before "skeletal African children are shown on the television screen at dinnertime" in the West.
The number of hungry people is estimated to have reached 1.02 billion - up 11 percent from last year's 915 million, the FAO said. It said it based its estimate on analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The FAO said the rate of hunger was rising also - that is, the number of hungry people is growing more quickly than the world population. Officials did not provide a rate but said the trend began two years ago.
Almost all the world's undernourished live in developing countries. But all regions of the world have registered two-digit increases in hunger from last year.
The world's most populous region, Asia and the Pacific, has the largest number of hungry people - 642 million, up 10.5 percent from last year. Sub-Saharan Africa registers 265 million undernourished, an 11.8 percent increase.
Even in the developed world, undernourishment is a growing concern, with 15 million in all and a 15.4 percent increase, the sharpest rise around the world, the FAO said.
The dire figures make it highly unlikely that a goal set by the wealthiest nations to cut hunger in the world in half by 2015 will be met, though officials vow to press world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Italy next month.