WASHINGTON - This year the number of poor people around the world struggling to get enough food for survival for themselves and their families has risen to a little more than a billion -- the highest level in 30 years.
Food supplies have been reduced by floods and droughts. But more importantly, they have been hit by financial pressures. High oil prices pushed farmers to sell food crops for use as alternative fuels. Traders bid up prices on commodities like corn and wheat. A worldwide recession led to lost jobs and less money going back to relatives in developing countries from the United States and other places.
The economic stress has eased somewhat and aid agencies, the United States and a few other countries have upped their efforts to feed the poor and under-nourished -- especially in Africa and south Asia where the situation has chronically been the worst. But the mass of hungry people in what is often referred to the "world food crisis" has continued to rise. Experts say the picture is expected to be bleak for several years.
"The numbers have gone in reverse," said Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the United Nation's World Food Program. Yet she is optimistic.
Speaking here in a series of discussions on the United Nation's Millennium Goals jointly organized by CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the University of Miami's Knight Center for International Media, Ms. Sheeran said the response by the United States and other countries has been encouraging. For years, financial aid for agricultural in developing countries had been declining. This year the United States increased aid for farmers to about $600 million and the Obama administration is asking Congress for $1.3 billion next year. The United States and several other big countries are promising to provide $20 billion over the next three years.
"We know how to defeat hunger," Ms Sheeran told an audience of about 150 college students, professors, business executives and experts on food, economics and the environment. "When you have leadership in place, when you have innovations in place. This is doable."
Ms. Sheeran, who took charge of the World Food Program in early 2007 after serving as Under Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs in the administration of George W. Bush, praised President Obama. "President Obama stepped up to the plate," she said.
For several years the ranks of the hungry and undernourished had been steady at about 850 million, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The situation began to get worse in 2004. The number rose to 923 million in 2007 as the crisis began to take hold. It now stands at 1.02 billion.
The joint program of CSIS and the University of Miami's Knight Center for International Media, a unit of the university's School of Communication, began with a discussion on Haiti. The next discussion, on HIV-AIDS, is scheduled for Jan 17. One of the speakers is expected to be Dr. Eric Goosby, the State Department's Global AIDS Coordinator, appointed by President Obama in June.
The discussions are being broadcast live, worldwide, over the Internet. They are designed to engage and motivate policymakers and to inspire students and people everywhere. The University of Miami is complementing the discussions with a series of student-produced multi-media reports on poverty, women's health and other components of the Millennium Goals in world cities.
In the food and hunger discussion, Dr. Daniel Benetti, the director of aquaculture at the University of Miami's Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, spoke of adding to the world's food supply through aquaculture or fish farming. The University of Miami is pioneering work on growing fish in small, fenced in places in the ocean.
"We have to take a closer look at the oceans," Dr. Benetti said. "Seventy percent of the world is water. We believe we are not focusing enough on that."
One of the first beneficiaries of increased fish production would be the United States, Dr. Benetti said. The United States now imports 80 percent of the fish that Americans eat, he said. The result is an annual seafood trade deficit of $10 billion.
He compared the seafood imbalance to the United States dependence on foreign oil. "We must start producing our own food and become independent," Dr. Benetti said.
The moderator, Mariam Atash Nawabi, a television anchor at America Abroad Media and the president of AMDi, an international development consulting firm, asked where aquaculture has been most successful.
"Greece," said Dr. Benetti. "Eighteen years ago Greece didn't have any aquaculture. Now it produces more than all other" European countries. Australia, he said, has also been a leader.
Johanna Nesseth Tuttle is the vice president for strategic planning at CSIS. During the discussion, she said that CSIS, a non-profit, non-partisan research and analysis center, is focusing on three aspects of global food and hunger: production, research and trade, with a focus on small farmers that includes ways to provide them access to markets, fertilizer and better seeds, and such basic infrastructure needs as roads and irrigation.
Ms. Sheeran said that news coverage of the crisis has declined somewhat recently. But she said that "food prices are higher today than a year ago" in the majority of developing countries
When food prices are high, it is not just a matter of the poor buying less. But often, she said, governments in poor countries cannot raise the money to pay for their usual food imports. So there is not enough food to meet demand at any price. At one point, she said, "Liberia and other countries couldn't put enough cash on the table to compete in very tight global markets."
Women and children suffer most in a food crisis, Ms. Sheeran said. These days, she said, more than 250 million children do not have a consistent, healthy supply of food. Many of them are receiving little or no help. The World Food Program tries to intervene in the most severe cases. But overall, she said, the agency is able to provide food for only about 10 percent of those in desperate need.
Ms. Sheeran held up a red plastic cup, about the size of an over-large coffee mug. "This is the cup the World Food Program uses to reach over 20 million school children," she said. "It is the only guaranteed food they are going to get" on any given day.