ROME - Figures the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) presented here Tuesday revealing a reduction in the world's number of hungry people in 2010 for the first time in 15 years should be a cause for celebration. In reality it is a hollow success.
It is not that the fall is too small to be significant. On the contrary, the United Nations agency estimates 925 million are undernourished this year, a drop of 98 million on the 2009 level of 1,023 billion, almost 10 percent down.
If the world carried on at that rate, the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG1) of halving the proportion of hungry from the 1992 level of 20 percent to 10 percent by 2015 would start to look possible.
Unfortunately, the fall is down to short-term improvements in the global economic climate, rather than real, lasting progress in the fight against empty stomachs.
The recovery and lower food prices have alleviated the situation after the effects of the credit crunch and the 2008 spike in commodity prices pushed millions into the ranks of the hungry. But hunger levels remain above pre-crisis levels and the structural problems that mean almost one billion people -- around 16 percent -- do not have enough food to meet their energy needs remain.
"It's still an enormously high figure. The worst excesses of the crisis have gone away a little, but there's no celebration,'' Alex Rees, Save the Children UK's Head of Hunger Reduction, told IPS. "There must be a great sense of urgency as the number is so high. There are still a number of emergencies in many parts of the world."
So MDG1 is still far out of reach despite ample aggregate food supplies, and poor people all over the developing world remain vulnerable to the shocks that economic fluctuations and failed crops can swiftly bring.
A recent upsurge in commodity prices that prompted Russia to extend its ban on wheat exports till 2011 has sparked speculation that prices might be on the way back to the 2008 crisis levels. The FAO and authoritative institutes such as the International Food Policy Research Institution (IFPRI) say this is not the case pointing to, among other things, positive food stock levels, while admitting that the situation is volatile.
''The food crisis has not gone away -- 925 million hungry people is still a scandal,'' said Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International. ''The dip in the number of hungry people has more to do with luck than judgment.
"Another global food crisis could explode at any time unless governments tackle the underlying causes of hunger, including food price volatility, decades of underinvestment in agriculture, and climate change.''
The problem persists even though the FAO and its sister U.N. food agencies in Rome, the World Food Program (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), say there is no mystery about the solutions. They say the experience of countries such as Nigeria, Armenia and Brazil show hunger can be slashed by investing in small-holder agriculture to help the rural poor feed themselves in the long-term and providing safety nets so the needy can survive short-term crises.
The world has the food and it has the knowhow, which has led some to conclude that what is lacking is the willpower.
"The fact that there are so many hungry people in the world is a challenge to the notion of human progress," Tony P. Hall, director of the Alliance to End Hunger and former United States ambassador to the U.N. food agencies in Rome, told IPS.
"We have the ability to stop it, but do we have the will? It's a question of economic, political and spiritual will. So far, we've not shown it."
Anti-poverty activists hope that a summit UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called in New York next week in a bid to get the world back on track to achieve the eight MDGs will give renewed momentum to the fight on hunger.
But such meetings have a poor record when it comes to producing aid and investment commitments that governments stick to, and politicians are not the only ones to blame. The general public of both rich and developing nations is complicit in the failure to keep these pledges, by reacting with indifference, rather than indignation.
Earlier this year, for example, the FAO launched an online petition encouraging people to get 'mad as hell' about the injustice of hunger, and to pressure their governments to act.
On Tuesday morning, it had almost 721,000 signatories -- not bad for an online campaign, but a fraction of the millions who will go shopping in a mall, watch soap operas or Champions League football, or eat at a restaurant later in the day.
"With a child dying every six seconds because of undernourishment-related problems, hunger remains the world's largest tragedy and scandal," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf told a press conference Tuesday. "This is absolutely unacceptable."