ROME (AP) -- Declining aid and investment in agriculture caused a steady increase in world hunger for more than a decade before the economic crisis pushed the ranks of the hungry to a record 1 billion, a U.N. food agency said Wednesday.
Unless the trend is reversed, the international goal of slashing the number of hungry people in half by 2015 will not be met, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned in a report.
After gains in the fight against hunger in the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of undernourished people started climbing in 1995, reaching 1.02 billion this year under the combined effect of high food prices and the global financial meltdown, the agency said.
The blame for the long-term trend rests largely on the reduced share of aid and private investments earmarked for agriculture since the mid 1980s, the Rome-based agency said in its State of Food Insecurity report for 2009.
"In the fight against hunger the focus should be on increasing food production," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said. "It's common sense ... that agriculture would be given the priority, but the opposite has happened."
In 1980, 17 percent of aid contributed by donor countries went to agriculture. That share was down to 3.8 percent in 2006 and only slightly improved in the last three years, Diouf said in an interview with AP Television News.
The decline may have been caused by low food prices that discouraged private investment in agriculture and competition for public funds from other aid fields including emergency relief, debt reduction, and helping set up institutions and improve government practices, said FAO economist David Dawe.
Governments and investors may also have operated under the impression that other economic sectors needed more money because agriculture's share of the economy in some developing countries dropped as people moved to cities and found work in industry, economists said.
Agriculture may look "less sexy" because of its slower growth rate, but it still needs sustained investment to feed people in developing countries, Dawe said.
Until recently, "there was still the idea that agriculture is something you move quickly out of in the course of development," said Keith Wiebe, another FAO economist.
Soaring prices for food staples in 2007 and 2008 forced poor families to sell their meager assets and cut down on meals, health and education spending.
Although the inflated prices -- which caused riots across the globe last year -- have stabilized, they remain comparatively high, especially in the developing world, Diouf told APTN.
In the meantime, the world economic crisis is increasing unemployment, reducing remittances that immigrants send back home and making it difficult for poor countries to get credit lines to buy food on the market, Diouf said.
Thirty countries now require emergency food assistance, including 20 in Africa. FAO announced in June that the number of hungry people had reached 1 billion, or one in six of the world's population. The world's most populous region, Asia and the Pacific, has the largest number of hungry people -- 642 million -- followed by Sub-Saharan Africa with 265 million.
Diouf said world leaders are starting to understand that investment in agriculture must be increased. He cited the goal set by July's Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, to raise $20 billion to help farmers in poor countries produce more -- a shift from previous emphasis on delivering food aid.
However, more investments will be needed to fulfill pledges like the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve of the number of those living in hunger and poverty by 2015, the report said.
FAO, which will host a world food summit next month, says global food output will have to increase by 70 percent to feed a projected population of 9.1 billion in 2050.
To achieve that, poor countries will need $44 billion yearly of aid to agriculture, compared with the current $7.9 billion, to increase access to irrigation systems, modern machinery, as well as to build roads and train farmers.