By Moises Avila
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - About 49 million people were hungry in Latin America and the Caribbean between 2010 and 2012, indicating a slower pace of hunger reduction due to weaker economic growth and high levels of inequality, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.
The export-dependent region is undergoing a commodities-led boom, but a slowdown in key trade partner China and unequal wealth distribution have hurt efforts to combat hunger, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report.
About 8.3 percent of the region's inhabitants do not get the necessary daily calories to maintain a healthy life, FAO said. Haiti, Guatemala, Paraguay, Bolivia and Nicaragua suffer the highest rates of hunger.
Between 2004 and 2006, about 54 million people in the region were hungry, a number that dropped to 50 million between 2007 and 2009.
"Though the trend of hunger reduction continues, it is slowing its rhythm, which is consistent with the slowdown in economic growth registered by countries in the region," the report added.
The economies of Latin America and the Caribbean grew a sizzling 6 percent in 2010, but that rate is expected to have eased to 3.2 percent this year, according to the United Nations economic body for Latin America.
Commodities - including soy, wheat and corn - remain the backbone of many of the region's economies.
"In 2012, the region's economic growth didn't translate into a reduction in the vulnerability that part of the continent's population is exposed to," said Raul Benitez, the FAO's representative for the region.
Rising food prices also threaten the poorest and most vulnerable households in the region, the agency said.
In the June to August period, average corn prices jumped 25 percent, average soy grain prices increased 20 percent and average wheat prices surged 26 percent, the agency said.
"In societies with high inequality, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, shocks in food prices have severe effects on those in extreme poverty," the report added.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Stacey Joyce)