Efforts to reduce chronic hunger in developing countries are not on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of starving people worldwide by 2015 but that target can still be attained with minimal costs relative to the benefits gained, according to a new United Nations report released today. With the number of hungry people rising to 852 million in the 2000-2002 period, up by 18 million from the mid-1990s, the human and economic costs of hunger will only increase if the trend is not reversed, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says in its annual hunger report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004. “It is possible that the international community has not fully grasped the economic bounce they would get from investments in hunger reduction,” FAO’s Assistant Director-General Hartwig de Haen said. “Enough is known about how to end hunger and now is the time to capture the momentum toward that goal. It is a matter of political will and prioritization.” More than 30 developing countries have already shown that progress is possible towards meeting the MDG through agricultural and rural development, the report notes.Hunger and malnutrition kill more than 5 million children every year and cost developing countries billions of dollars in lost productivity, yet the resources needed to effectively prevent this human and economic tragedy are minuscule when compared to the benefits, according to the report.Without the direct costs of dealing with the damage caused by hunger, more funds would be available to combat other social problems. “A very rough estimate suggests that these direct costs add up to around $30 billion per year – over five times the amount committed so far to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria,” it says.In addition, there are the indirect costs of lost productivity and income. For example, tolerating the current levels of child malnutrition will result in productivity and income losses over their lifetimes of between $500 billion to $1 trillion at present value. Yet every dollar invested in reducing hunger can yield from five to over 20 times as much in benefits, it stresses. “More than 30 countries, representing nearly half the population of the developing world, provide proof that rapid progress is possible as well as lessons in how that progress can be achieved,” the report says. These countries – including Brazil, China, Haiti, Indonesia, Jamaica, Nigeria, Syria and Viet Nam – have reduced the percentage of hungry people by at least 25 per cent during the 1990s. The report points to “ample evidence” that rapid progress can be made by applying a twin-track strategy attacking both the causes and consequences of extreme poverty and hunger. Track one includes interventions to improve food availability and incomes for the poor by enhancing their productive activities. Track two features targeted programmes that give the most needy families direct and immediate access to food. The report recommends that countries adopt large-scale programmes to promote primarily agriculture and rural development on which the majority of the poor and hungry depend for their livelihoods.