WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- At the end of the 20th century, an era marked by space exploration, computer wizardry and test-tube babies, the status of the human race may more accurately be reflected in a sobering statistic: 786 million people -- almost one in every six -- are suffering from acute or chronic hunger. More than 1 billion more face various forms of serious malnutrition.
"Hunger and malnutrition remain as the most devastating problems facing the majority of the world's poor. Despite general improvements in food availability, health and social services, hunger and malnutrition exist in some form in almost every country," concluded a recent survey by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
"Somalia is a drop in the bucket," said Marc Cohen, one of the authors of "Hunger 1993," a publication of the Bread for the World Institute.
Experts refer to the three faces of hunger -- acute, as in Somalia, where large numbers face imminent starvation; chronic, as in poverty-stricken, overpopulated and resource-poor countries like Bangladesh, and the "hidden" hunger that is worldwide, plaguing even industrialized nations.
Even the United States has a growing problem. From 1985 to 1992, the number of Americans suffering from hunger rose from 20 million to 30 million, the Tufts University School of Nutrition reported. It called the trend an epidemic.
Over the past three years, hunger also has become widespread in Eastern European countries, especially Russia, Bulgaria and Romania, while hunger in Albania has reached the same level as in sub-Saharan Africa, according to David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a grass-roots lobbying group on hunger issues.
But unlike previous crises, when famine fueled the cycles of starvation, the current one is all the more tragic because it is unnecessary.
"The world is capable of feeding decently all its inhabitants. That it is conspicuously not doing so at present is the product not of necessity but of choice," concludes a report in the "New State of the World Atlas," a survey of worldwide political and economic change.
There have been major changes over the past 40 years in the problem of hunger, including advances and setbacks.
"Despite the enormous problem in Somalia and a number of other countries, the long-term trend since 1950 -- of the numbers suffering from hunger -- is clearly downward," said Robert Kates, director of Brown University's World Hunger Program.
PD In 1969-71, more than 940 million people in the developing world
-- or 36 percent of its population at the time -- were chronically undernourished, compared with 20 percent in 1990, according to the FAO.
The good news can be traced to breakthroughs in the 1970s and early 1980s. "Over the course of the 1970s, new governments did something about food security. Places like Niger and Indonesia invested real resources in producing food and becoming more self-reliant," Mr. Cohen said.
China and India, the world's most populous countries, which also had the largest numbers suffering from hunger, also have made major strides through better food production and distribution and by introducing work-for-food programs.
The United States also made striking gains in reversing hunger and malnutrition in the 1970s, largely through federal food programs.
The second breakthrough evolved during the last cycle of African drought in the early 1980s, particularly in Ethiopia, when the international community learned how to provide and distribute mass aid.
The improvements in dealing with food production, aid logistics and weather mean that epidemics of hunger are now mostly "man-made. Starvation is now often a political problem," said James T. Hill, economist with the U.N. food agency.
But there were also setbacks in the 1980s, as the hunger crisis became more complex, weaving together such disparate factors as birthrates, debt crises, ancient ethnic or clan rivalries, misuse of land and water resources, and even political change.
"The 1980s were tough times, particularly in Africa and Latin America. In 1983, we had the longest recession since the Great Depression, which provoked the debt crisis from which many have still not recovered," Mr. Beckmann said.
To deal with their financial crises, many countries cut the very programs -- notably in nutrition and health -- developed in the 1970s to counter hunger. Third World governments were often more willing to cut welfare services than defense expenditures, just as many donor nations favored military aid over social programs.
That shift coincided with a period when the global population neared 5 billion -- compared with 2 billion in 1930 -- and began to threaten the "caring" capacity of the land, said J. Joseph Speidel, president of the Population Crisis Committee.
By the end of the decade, political and economic frustrations were also spawning unprecedented global change. But as whole political systems -- from apartheid to Marxism -- collapsed, the new openings also freed up old animosities among religious, tribal, national and clan groupings.
In 1990, all of those factors exploded in Somalia -- as per capita annual income sank to $150, as a soaring birthrate (the average family exceeded six children) meant a doubling of the population within 24 years, and finally as the political system dissolved into the anarchy.
All of those factors also do not bode well for the three faces of hunger in the early 1990s.
The worst crises of acute hunger in southern Africa have been eased somewhat by recent rains and decent harvests, and the U.S. and U.N. missions will eventually help Somalia.
But other acute cases -- the vast majority in strife-torn areas -- have almost no imminent prospects of relief. "The only places on Earth where people are dying of famine is where there is a simultaneous famine and war, like in Mozambique, Sudan and potentially Liberia and Afghanistan," said Mr. Kates, the Brown University expert.