(Reuters) - The world could wipe out hunger in coming decades and make images of "children with swollen bellies a thing of history", the new head of the United Nations food aid agency said on Wednesday.
Josette Sheeran, former undersecretary for economic affairs at the U.S. State Department, took the helm this month at the World Food Programme, the world's biggest aid agency with a budget of $3 billion.
She told Reuters in an interview that the world now has a historic opportunity to stop starvation.
"I think we can, in our lifetime, win the battle against hunger because we now have the science, technology, know-how and the logistics to be able to meet hunger where it comes," she said. "Those pictures of children with swollen bellies will be a thing of history."
Progress in areas like seed technology, soils and irrigation means that "in almost every case we do have the scientific understanding, knowledge and ability if we could pull together the strategy and resources to do so", she said.
"Never before in history have all those things come together as a possibility."
However, U.N. data shows no significant reduction in the number of hungry since 1990. On the contrary, the number of hungry people in the world -- 854 million -- is on the rise.
"With climate change, with the challenges we are having with conflicts, we see more people needing emergency assistance," said Sheeran, whose first field trip as executive director will be to Ethiopia, Darfur, southern Sudan and Chad next week.
Sheeran's first trip outside her Rome HQ was to Brindisi, the Italian port where since 2000 the WFP global emergency response base has flown U.N. aid that of other agencies and charities to disaster spots like Afghanistan and Tsunami-hit Asia.
"This is the kind of example we want to show to the world. Donors can come together, the host government, all with one goal," she said before visiting warehouses stacked with crates stamped with logos like World Health Organisation or Irish Aid.
The third successive U.S. head of the WFP, her candidacy stirred controversy because of her links to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Until 1997 she edited the Washington Times, a conservative paper owned by Moon's church.
Sheeran said she was surprised this interested the media, saying: "I have no idea why it's come up, I have no idea why it's relevant. I am not a member of that church."
Sheeran hopes to raise the WFP's public profile and maintain its high level of efficiency. The agency says 93 cents in every dollar donated go directly to providing food or medical care.
"In our business, the humanitarian business, if you save cost, it's not for profits for your shareholders, you save lives," she said.