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A hungry world: Lots of food, in too few places

Afghan children, who salvage recyclable items from garbage to make a living, eat a meal of rice in Jalalabad on June 30, 2013.
Noorullah Shirzada | AFP | Getty Images
Afghan children, who salvage recyclable items from garbage to make a living, eat a meal of rice in Jalalabad on June 30, 2013.

Of the roughly 7 billion people in the world, an estimated 870 million suffer each day from hunger.

That's hunger from malnutrition or not eating even the lowest amount of daily recommended calories—1,800—while often enduring food insecurity, or not knowing where the next meal is coming from.

The consistently massive population of hungry people—along with variables like severe weather and economic downturns—sometimes spark warnings that the planet faces impending food shortages.

And yet more people in the world—1.7 billion—are considered obese or overweight from a daily caloric intake that in some cases is at least six to seven times the minimum.

This paradox is nothing new, experts say. It just shows the problem isn't that we have too little food, it's what we do with the food we have.

More than enough food?

"We have two or three times the amount of food right now that is needed to feed the number of people in the world," said Joshua Muldavin, a geography professor at Sarah Lawrence College who focuses on food and agricultural instruction.

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"A lot of people aren't analyzing the situation correctly. We can deal with short-term food shortages after a disaster, but fixing long term hunger gets ignored," he said.

"We don't have food shortage problem," said Emelie Peine, a professor of international politics and economy at the University of Puget Sound.

"What we have is a distribution problem and an income problem," Peine said. "People aren't getting the food, ... and even if [they] did, they don't have enough money to buy it."

If there is enough food, a major problem causing scarcity is what we do with it, said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, an advocacy group for U.S. farmers.

"Something in the area of up to half of all that's produced is wasted," said Johnson, who runs his own farm in North Dakota.

"In the undeveloped world, the waste happens before the food gets to people, from lack of roads and proper storage facilities, and the food rots," Johnson said. "In the developed world, it's the staggering amount of food that's thrown out after it gets to our plates."

Food inflation

Of the near billion who go hungry, some 852 million live in developing countries, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (WFO).

But the world's largest economy— and the richest country on Earth—is not immune from hunger.

(Read more: Distracted eaters consume more calories)

An estimated one in six people, or some 50 million U.S.citizens, are unable to afford to buy sufficient food to stay healthy, according to the Department of Agriculture. Nearly 17 million are children.

"Our services are needed now more than ever," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, a nonprofit hunger relief organization. "With so many people out of work, it's not hard to figure out why."

"Many low income seniors use us on regular basis. We serve some three million a year," Fraser said. "They have fixed incomes and with other costs they have like medical bills or just paying the rent, they're often in need of food assistance."

Seniors or anyone else trying to get a handle on food costs are constantly riding a see-saw of inflation.

In 2012, according to the WFO, global food prices rose to near-record levels, rising 6 percent last July alone.

But according to the Global Food Security Index, food and beverage prices worldwide should drop by 5.7 percent through 2013, mainly due to bumper crops of corn and wheat resulting from favorable weather conditions.

"Food inflation and scarcity go hand in hand," said Mary Lawton Johnson, a food specialist, chef and author based in Palm Beach, Fla.

"Given a natural disaster, food and other items naturally go up in price," she said. "Once that scarcity is gone, food inflation reduces."

Plenty of solutions?

Even if prices are not going through the roof, buying more nutritious food is still costly.

"It is ironic that good or healthier food like apples are more expensive than the food laced with sugars or fats," said Peine. "We need to be more thoughtful on what food we grow."

But the reason for the higher prices is fairly simple, said the National Farmers Union's Johnson.

"Crops like vegetables and fruits are more perishable, so they are more expensive to grow," he said. "Unlike other commodities, they are just less profitable for farmers."

A further irony in the world's hunger problem is that farmers—outside of developed countries—make up a majority of the world's poorest and hungriest people.

"Many farmers don't make enough to live on each year," Ron Johnson said. "Underdeveloped economies and some global trade are pushing them to the side."

The WFO cites various causes for hunger and food insecurity—poverty, war, climate change, shrinking land and water resources, economic and political disruption.

Suggested solutions are just as plentiful.

"We don't need more corn and soybeans, which have become part of the ethanol focus to be energy efficient, and for feeding livestock," Peine said. "What we do need is to produce food to eat rather than industrial commodities."

Technology could be a key to ending food scarcity, said Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit group with business members including ConAgra and DuPont.

"We should be using more genetically modified crops that would produce stronger and sturdier crops," Arnot said.

"We need to move food from where it is to where it isn't and that means investing in agriculture development using the best technologies we have," Arnot added.

But technology comes with risk, said chef Mary Lawton Johnson.

"I'm not in favor of genetically modified foods to feed a starving world," she said. "The health side effects can be dangerous in my opinion."

(Read more: As drought spreads, firms could be up the creek)

"What we need is more localization of food-growing. Let the crops natural to the land grow instead of pushing crops that are not meant to be there," she said.

Food shortage solutions includes taming the investing markets, said Sarah Lawrence's Muldavin.

"The market trading of commodities is overboard and not helping food prices," said Muldavin. "Why does a bushel of wheat have to be traded five times a day?"

"I think we need to step out of the way of the market place and let it take its course," said Tim Richards, a professor of agribusiness at Arizona State University. "We're destroying local food markets around the world by forcing them to buy U.S. commodities."

"We should stop global government support for farmers. The market does a fantastic job of sorting out prices and food production," said Richards. "If we just stay out of the way, food shortages could be eliminated."

Change the food debate

Last October, the WFO issued a warning saying a global food crisis could happen in 2013. The alarm was over rising food prices, lack of grain reserves and extreme weather conditions.

All those conditions have receded this year as prices have pulled back, reserves have increased and some areas of the globe have seen better weather.

But eradicating world hunger won't be as simple as drought-ending rains or silos full of wheat, said Muldavin.

"A lot of folks have different opinions on how to solve the problem of hunger," he said. "But we have to reframe the debate from food shortages to understanding why so many people are not accessing good, nutritious food."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba.

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