The world is losing the battle against hunger (search), with the number of malnourished people (search) in developing nations growing to more than 800 million people and rising, according to a U.N. report Wednesday.

The report's findings make an eight-year-old pledge by governments to halve the number of the world's hungry by 2015 seem difficult to reach — the number in the developing world is just 9 million lower than in 1990-92.

Yet the report by the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization insisted that achieving the target is still possible, and that progress toward that goal would provide countries with rich returns through boosts to productivity and income.

Hartwig De Haen, assistant director-general of the agency's economic and social department, described the target as "ambitious but still feasible."

The report proposed a combination of programs to help boost agricultural productivity and direct food aid to achieve the 2015 target. Governments set the goal at the U.N. World Food Summit in 1996, using 1990-92 as the base date.

Though the number of hungry people in developing countries fell in the early 1990s, that trend was later reversed, the report said, the agency's annual update on world hunger. By 2000-02 the figure stood at 815 million, just 9 million below the estimate of a decade earlier.

With an additional 28 million hungry people in "transition" countries such as those in eastern Europe, and 9 million in industrialized countries, the global total in 2000-02 stood at 852 million.

The report details the massive human costs of global hunger, saying present levels of undernourishment cause the death of more than 5 million children every year — or one child every five seconds.

But it also appeals to economic rationale, saying that every dollar invested against hunger provides 5-20 times as much in return.

"It is possible that the international community has not fully grasped the economic bounce that would be possible from investments in hunger reduction," De Haen told a news conference.

According to the report, hunger and malnutrition cost around $30 billion in direct medical expenses each year, with estimated indirect costs due to premature death and disability ballooning into hundreds of billions of dollars.

The report said hunger cuts productivity and earnings, reduces school attendance and erodes cognitive abilities.

According to the agency's estimates, an annual increase in funding of $24 billion would be needed to reach the hunger target — but returns would reach $120 billion each year.

The report pointed to reasons for optimism, saying that the more than 30 countries — with a total population of over 2.2 billion — have reduced levels of undernourishment by 25 percent since 1990-92. In the second half of the 1990s, the proportion of the world's hungry had dropped from 20 percent to 18 percent, it said.

The report blamed the recent rise in hunger levels largely on a worsening situation in the world's two most populous countries, China and India, both of which had earlier recorded improvements.

De Haen said an 18 million increase in the number of hungry people in India in the second half of the 1990s was due to rapid population growth in the country, wiping out any successes there in tackling undernourishment.

The agency said that Latin America was the only developing region to see a modest reduction in hunger in the second half of the 1990s, with the numbers in Asia, African and the Near East on the rise. All but one of the 16 countries with the highest levels of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa, where many nations are suffering from food emergencies, the report said.