June 12, 2009 / 5:33 PM / 10 years ago

U.N. warns of catastrophe as hungry people top 1 bln

ROME (Reuters) - High food prices have pushed another 105 million people into hunger in the first half of 2009, the head of the U.N. World Food Programme said on Friday, raising the total number of hungry people to over 1 billion.

A man eats a fried bread stick on a street in Changzhi, Shanxi province October 23, 2008. High food prices have pushed another 105 million people into hunger in the first half of 2009, the head of the U.N. World Food Programme said on Friday, raising the total number of hungry people to over 1 billion. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

Urging rich nations at a meeting of the Group of Eight’s development ministers not cut back on aid, Josette Sheeran told Reuters the world faced a “human catastrophe” as more and more people struggle to eat a decent meal.

“This year we are clocking in on average four million new hungry people a week, urgently hungry,” Sheeran told Reuters.

“Already for the first six months of this year, 105 million people have been added,” she said, citing figures to be released by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation next week that will raise the total number of undernourished people to over 1 billion.

In 2008, FAO said the world’s hungry numbered 963 million.

The WFP needs $6.4 billion this year for food aid, but donors’ contributions have fallen way behind that level — it had around $1.5 billion at the end of last week.

The agency says it has had to cut food aid rations and shut down some operations in eastern Africa and North Korea because of the credit crunch.

“I know it seems a big figure, but if you compare it with the global stimulus package, it means that for less than 1 percent of that we could help meet the urgent human crisis that is unfolding, and that is just as essential to the stability of the world,” Sheeran said.

She said that despite a decline in most food prices from record peaks last year, they remained stubbornly high in developing countries, while global food aid was at a 20-year low.

The financial crisis has only made things worse, and in terms of staple food, people in poorer countries today can only afford about a third of what they could afford three years ago.

In a statement after a two-day meeting in Rome, G8 ministers reaffirmed their commitment to more than double aid to Africa to $25 billion a year by 2010.

But a report this week said the group was collectively off course in delivering on those pledges, made at a G8 summit in Scotland in 2005.

The report, by anti-poverty body ONE, was particularly critical of Italy, saying Rome was trailing far behind other nations in meeting aid targets and that undermined its credibility as G8 president this year.

“We have confirmed our commitment to find the resources this year to bring us back on track and fulfil our undertakings,” Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters on Friday, responding to the report.

ONE said Italy had delivered only three percent of the aid increase to Africa pledged by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi four years ago.

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