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In 1945, the year the vicious war ended, there was famine in Italy, Russia, Bengal, Burma and much of China; and yet there were unsellable surpluses of food in the United States, Canada and some Latin American countries. Products could have been shipped, stored and sold in quantities large enough to feed any conceivable population. However, nearly three-quarters of humanity went hungry or were starving. Close to 60 years later, more than 800 million of the 6.3 billion people on Earth — among them 300 million children — still suffer the gnawing pain of hunger. Almost every year since the mid-1970s the world community of nations has renewed a call for the eradication of hunger and starvation within a decade.

Progress has been painfully slow. A study released last August by the Food and Agriculture Organization, a U.N. agency, says the number of hungry people is likely to decline to 440 million worldwide by 2030 — still short of the 2000 Millennium Summit target of halving the number to 400 million by 2015.

“Even the less ambitious goal would not be reached for more than 60 years, too late for many of the world’s poor,” asserts another FAO report.

“How can a sizable chunk of the world,” asks development authority Lester Brown, “remain hungry when food production soared in the last century?”

These and other questions were before us during global observance of World Food Day last Wednesday. Starvation continues to stalk the magnitude of the poor in Asia and the Pacific, home to two-thirds of the 780 million undernourished people in the developing world. One in every six of more than 3 billion people in the region is not able to eat enough to lead an active and healthy life. Lack of adequate nutrition saps the economic productivity of an individual while undermining the economic health of a nation.

During the 1990s, records show, China reduced the number of hungry by 76.3 million. Yet, at present, about 200 million, or roughly one in five in India, and 5 million, or one in four in Nepal, go to bed hungry every night and get up hungry in the morning. More than 3 million Indonesians face a high risk of hunger and malnutrition as a result of the spiralling costs of food in a period of slow economic growth.

If you think food scarcity causes hunger, you would be wrong. Today’s world produces enough rice, wheat and other grains to feed every man, woman and child an adequate calorie intake. The problem is that many people are too poor to buy readily available food. It may also be too easy to blame overpopulation; food production has outpaced world population growth, a trend that is to continue for decades.

If you categorically blame famine, drought and other forms of natural disaster, you again might be wrong. Only the poorest in rural areas fall victim when “deprived of land by a powerful few,” as noted by the coauthors of the 1998 book “World Hunger: 12 Myths.”

Obviously the ultimate goal to free all humanity from the scourge of hunger and starvation is within reach, but insufficient national and multinational initiatives continue to deny the world’s poor the right to food.

“There are two worlds in North Korea,” writes a German physician relief worker. “In the countryside, starving people forage for food, peasants lead lives of utter destitution. In Pyongyang, Communist Party members and military personnel enjoy a comfortable lifestyle — obscene in the context — with fancy restaurants and night clubs. . . . Much of the food aid was denied to those who needed it most. Nobody really knows where it’s going.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 already stipulates that everyone “has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.” None should allow this to sound hollow and vain.

Political rethinking, social reform and courageous human decisions can change the whole picture. Popular movements like those that ended slavery, relieved millions from the yoke of colonial rule and brought them long-awaited self-determination can eventually end hunger, too.

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