MADRID - Global food production, already under strain from the credit crunch, must double by 2050 to head off mass hunger, the head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Monday.
The food crisis pushed another 40 million people into hunger in 2008, Jacques Diouf said here at the start of a two-day international conference on food security.
That brought the global number of undernourished people to 973 million last year out of a total population of around 6.5 billion, he said.
"We face the challenge now of not only ensuring food for the 973 million who are currently hungry, but also ensuring there is food for nine billion people in 2050. We will need to double global food production by 2050," he said.
But Diouf warned the global economic crisis was already undermining efforts to tackle food insecurity as it was making it harder for farmers to get loans to buy materials and new equipment that would boost yields.
"The current economic situation does not make our task easier," he said.
The fall in prices for certain food staples from last year's highs could also discourage farmers from sowing crops, adding to the difficulty in meeting FAO's goal to halve the number of people who live in hunger by 2015, he said.
A combination of factors, including poor harvests, changing diets in emerging economies and a drive for biofuels, have come together to push food prices up, leading to protests in around 30 countries last year.
Ireland's Minister for Overseas Development Aid, Peter Power, said the hunger crisis had not been given the same level of attention as the fight against AIDS, the global financial crisis or climate change.
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"This silent tsunami is completely unacceptable," he said to applause from delegates.
But Josette Shearan, the head of the UN World Food Program, the world's largest humanitarian agency, warned the world will only be able to produce enough food for everyone in 2050 if food security is made a top priority.
"If we have to produce twice as much food and we are already in a situation where one out of every six people can't get access to adequate food, this compels us to put it at the top of the agenda," she said.
In a video address, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington was "committed" to working with other nations to meet the goal of halving the number of people worldwide living in poverty and hunger by 2015.
"We are committed to building a new partnership among donor states, developing nations, UN agencies, NGOs, the private sector and others to better coordinate policies to achieve the Millennium Development Goals," she said.
The gathering is a follow-up to another UN-sponsored summit held last year in Rome to tackle the food crisis, which ended without agreement on issues such as farm subsidies, trade barriers and use of foods to make biofuels.
Diouf said nations and international organizations pledged 22 billion dollars (17 billion euros) during and after the Rome summit in development aid to alleviate hunger, which must be quickly put to use.
More than 40 government ministers and heads of international organisations were attending the meeting, which will be officially closed on Tuesday by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.