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The world's biggest problem: Our hungry planet

Global hunger just got worse. What can the dismal science do?

Severely malnourished Sadiki Basilaki, 9, receives a mug of milk at a catholic mission feeding center in Rutshuru, 50 miles north of Goma in eastern Congo, Nov. 13, 2008. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

BOSTON — Economics is often called — only half-jokingly — the dismal science.

As anyone who's struggled to grasp concepts like agency costs, horizontal equity or the Laffer curve knows, the science can be pretty dismal.

That's especially true when considering the economic aspects of global hunger, where the news is bad and getting worse.

According to the United Nations the number of hungry people this year reached 1.02 billion. That's one in six human beings. Moreover, that figure has been growing each year for more than a decade, while the ravages of the global economic crisis are making matters worse in nearly every corner of the world.

So what's the root of the problem? There are many, of course — endemic poverty, conflict, climate change, bad governance and on and on. But according to the U.N.'s chief food honcho Jacques Diouf, the biggest factor is an economic one: under-investment in agriculture and rural development.

"If people go hungry today it is not because the world is not producing enough food but because it is not produced in the countries where 70 percent of the world's poor live and whose livelihoods depend on farming activities," Diouf said at a U.N. food conference in Geneva. "The challenge is not only to ensure food security for the one billion hungry people today, which is certainly an enormous task, but also to be able to feed a world population that is expected to reach 9.1 billion in 2050," he said.

So what can the dismal science do?

At its heart economics is about finding the most efficient allocation of resources — money, time, capital equipment, employees and all the other complex and interrelated factors that go into providing everything from Boeing airplanes, to Maytag washing machines, to Chinese foot massages, Xbox games, Mini Coopers and food staples like rice, potatoes and corn.