One billion people will go hungry around the globe next year for the first time in human history, as the international financial crisis deepens, the United Nations has told The Independent on Sunday.
The shocking landmark will be passed - despite a second record worldwide harvest in a row - because people are becoming too destitute to buy the food that is produced.
Decades of progress in reducing hunger are being abruptly reversed, dealing a devastating blow to a pledge by world leaders eight years ago to cut it in half by 2015.
Rich countries have failed to provide promised money to boost agriculture in the Third World; the financial crisis is starving developing countries of credit and driving their people into greater poverty, and food aid to the starving is expected to begin drying up next month.
Development charities recently called on US president-elect Barack Obama to put the escalating food crisis "front and centre" of his priorities.
Some 963 million people are now undernourished worldwide, according to the most recent survey of the crisis by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the UN body expects the situation to worsen with the recession. "The number will rise steadily next year," an FAO spokesman told the IoS last week. "We are looking at a billion people. That is clear." The FAO fears the tally will go on increasing for years to come.
This directly contradicts an undertaking by the world's leaders at a special summit in September 2000 to "reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger" from 1990 levels by 2015, as part of an ambitious set of Millennium Development Goals.
At the time, and for several years afterwards, the goal looked achievable, if challenging. Between 1990 and 2005 the number of undernourished people stayed more or less the same at between 800 and 850 million, even though world population grew by 1.2 billion, meaning that the proportion of a rapidly increasing humanity that went hungry was steadily falling.
Several countries - including Ghana, Peru, Mexico, Chile, Jamaica and Costa Rica - actually exceeded the target years ahead of time, while others such as Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Mozambique were on track to achieve it. Twenty-five developing nations looked as if they would be able to halve the absolute number of their hungry - not just the proportion of them in their rising populations - by the target date.
But over the past three years that progress has been thrown abruptly into reverse, with the first steep and sustained rise in hunger in decades leaving another 115 million people short of food. The increase began when prosperity was still increasing and has continued despite bumper harvests; a new FAO report shows that this year's grain crop is set to grow by 5.4 per cent to 2,241 million tons, following a 6 per cent rise last year - ahead of population growth.
So the growth in hunger is not occurring, as in the past, because of shortage of food - but because people cannot afford to buy it even when it is plentiful. The main reason has been that high food prices have priced the poor out of the market.
Over the 12 months until last summer, wheat and maize prices more than doubled and rice prices more than tripled. This was due partly to the growth in biofuels which, the FAO reports, has taken over 100 million tons of cereals out of food supplies over the past year to fuel cars instead. One fill of a 4x4's tank uses enough grain to feed one poor person for a year.
The organisation also blames speculation, population growth, the shrinking of food stocks to record lows and the increasing consumption of meat in developing countries such as China and India, which mops up grain supplies because they are used to feed livestock.
International prices have fallen sharply since the summer, as this year's good harvest has further swelled supplies and the growing financial crisis has cut demand. But the FAO reports that the lower prices have failed to ease the crisis, while the increasing financial turmoil has made it worse.
Developing countries have not benefited from the falling worldwide cost of food, it says, because their currencies have depreciated against the dollar in which international prices are set and their domestic supplies remain scarce, keeping prices in local markets at record levels.
Virtually none of the increased production of the past two years has taken place in the Third World, partly because its farmers have been unable to afford expensive fertilisers and seeds while the profits of giant agrochemical and biotech companies have soared. Now as rich countries' economies slump, they are importing fewer commodities and goods from developing ones, driving national incomes down and increasing unemployment and poverty. As employment falls in the West, Third World immigrants are losing their jobs and are no longer able to send back the money they save from their wages in remittances to their families, a financial boost that is often crucial in keeping them out of dire poverty.
Just as serious, the FAO adds, the credit that Third World farmers need to buy seeds, energy and agricultural chemicals - and to improve production - is drying up.
Aid, too, is falling precipitously. Earlier this month, the World Food Programme - the UN agency that provides food to the hungry - announced that it was running out of supplies. Unless it receives more soon it expects to have to start rationing aid next month, and to run out of food altogether for needy countries such as Haiti, Sudan and Bangladesh by March.
At a special summit in June last year, rich governments pledged $12.3bn (£8.4bn) to tackle the food crisis, but have so far handed over only $1bn of it, as they have scrambled to provide trillions to bail out failing banks.
"Overcoming the financial crisis is critical," concludes the FAO in a recent report, "but continuing the fight against hunger by realising those pledged billions is no less important." Jacques Diouf, the FAO's director general, warns: "Unless the political will and donor pledges are turned into urgent and real actions, millions more will fall into deep poverty."
Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme, added: "While we worry about Wall Street and the high street, we are also paying attention to the needs of those who live in places with no street." She has called on governments to devote just 1 per cent of their bailout and stimulus packages to fighting hunger.
The worst is yet to come, taking the number of hungry beyond the one billion mark. As food prices fall, the FAO is reporting signs that farmers in Europe and North America are reducing their plantings for next year's harvest - and the same thing is likely to happen in the Third World as the lack of credit stops its farmers from being able to buy the food and agricultural chemicals they need. So next year's harvest, it is feared, will be smaller, even if the weather remains good.
The run of good seasons is unlikely to continue for long, even in the short run. And in the medium to long term, climate change is expected to make harvests dramatically worse. Mr Diouf predicts that, if the world fails to take urgent action to keep global warming beneath 2C, the emerging international target, "the global food production potential can be expected to contract severely" - with harvests dropping by up to 40 per cent in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Global targets: a progress report
Goal one Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger between 1990 and 2015.
Progress 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty, down from 42 per cent of the world population in 1990 to 26 per cent in 2005. Up to 75 per cent of the population is employed except in parts of Africa and Asia. Undernourished under-fives dropped from 33 per cent in 1990 to 26 per cent in 2006.
Success or failure? Still possible by 2015 but lack of progress in sub-Saharan Africa, where workers earn less than $1 a day.
Goal two Universal primary education by 2015.
Progress 570 million children worldwide enrolled in school. Those not enrolled fell from 103 million in 1999 to 73 million in 2006. Primary school enrolment reached 88 per cent in 2006, up 5 per cent per cent from 2000.
Success or failure? 38 million children in sub-Saharan Africa are not enrolled, while in southern Asia 18 million do not go to school. This goal may not be achieved by 2015, and there are barriers on girls going to school.
Goal three Promote gender equality in education by 2015 and empower women.
Progress 55 per cent of children not in school are girls. Women occupy about 30 per cent of parliamentary seats in 20 countries. Women occupy 40 per cent of all paid jobs, up 5 per cent on 1990.
Success or failure? 113 countries failed to achieve equality of enrolment; only 18 will meet the target. Since 2000, the proportion of women in parliaments rose from 13.5 to 17.9 per cent.
Goal four Reduce child mortality of under-fives by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.
Progress Deaths of under-fives declined from 93 to 72 deaths per 1,000 live births between 1990 and 2006, and child deaths dropped below 10 million a year in 2006.
Success or failure? Children born in developing countries still 13 times more likely to die under five. Between 1990 and 2006, 26 countries made no progress in reducing childhood deaths, while in 27 others the mortality rate is flat or getting worse.
Goal five Improve maternal health and reduce mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.
Progress Maternal mortality decreased by less than 1 per cent per year between 1990 and 2005; 60 per cent of births were attended by health professionals in 2006, up 10 per cent since 1990.
Success or failure? 500,000 women a year in developing countries die during pregnancy. Worst progress of all goals.
Goal six Universal access to treatment for Aids/HIV by 2010 and reverse spread of HIV/Aids and malaria by 2015.
Progress New HIV cases declined from three million a year in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2007. Funding increased tenfold within a decade. Mosquito net production rose from 30 million in 2004 to 95 million in 2007.
Success or failure? 7,500 people a day infected with HIV; 5,500 die of Aids-related illness; 500 million new cases of malaria a year.
Goal seven Reduce loss of biodiversity by 2010 and halve number of people without access to safe water or sanitation by 2015.
Progress Deforestation declined to 7.3 million hectares a year; 1.6 billion people have access to drinking water since 1990.
Success or failure? 40 per cent of the world lives with water scarcity, and fish stocks are overexploited. One billion people still have no access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion have no access to basic sanitation, yet target may still be achieved.
Goal eight Develop a global partnership for development.
Progress The UK is among the few nations to meet targets of giving 0.15 per cent of gross national Income in aid. The burden of debt in developing countries fell from 13 per cent of exports in 2000 to 7 per cent in 2006.
Success or failure? Aid dropped from £67bn in 2005 to £64bn in 2007 but needs to increase by £18bn a year. A third of essential medicines are available in 30 developing countries.