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Sunday, March 9, 2008

World Food Program warning on soaring food prices, by Darren Ennis of Reuters

From the International Herald Tribune, March 6, 2008

Brussels: Strong increases in food prices, which have been reaching record levels, are expected to continue until at least 2010, fueling a "new hunger" across the globe and anarchy on the streets of poorer nations, a top United Nations official said Thursday.

Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN's World Food Program, said the global economy had created "a perfect storm for the world's hungry, caused by high oil and food prices and low food stocks."

The WFP assessment is that the situation will continue for the next few years, Sheeran said during a visit to Brussels to meet with officials of the European Union.

Her visit came on a day that oil, gold and copper soared to record highs as investors, fleeing a weak dollar, piled into commodities.

Sheeran said food prices were rising because of a combination of soaring oil and energy prices, the effects of climate change, growing demand from countries like India and China and the use of crops to produce biofuels.

"This is leading to a new face of hunger in the world, what we call the newly hungry," she said. "These are people who have money, but have been priced out of being able to buy food."

The result could be a spike in violence, Sheeran said.

"Higher food prices will increase social unrest in a number of countries which are sensitive to inflationary pressures and are import-dependent," she said. "We will see a repeat of the riots we have already reported on the streets such as we have seen in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Senegal."

More than 25,000 people die from hunger or a related illness every day across the world.

Sheeran was in Brussels seeking help in bridging a $500 million dollar "food gap" that has been created by soaring commodity costs, which have increased by around 40 percent since 2007.

The WFP, based in Rome, is drawing up a list of 30 countries this it considers "most vulnerable" to food inflation crises. One example is Afghanistan, where $77 million is needed to feed an additional 2.5 million people who are not able to pay the higher costs for staple items.

"Our budget shortfall for 2008 means that at the moment we have to decide, do we provide 40 percent less food or do we reach out to 40 percent less people. This is unacceptable," Sheeran said.

Along with additional financing, she said one solution would be to increase food production by using more land for agriculture and reducing the amount of land set aside for biofuels.

The EU last year set itself a target for having biofuels account for 10 percent of the fuel used for transportation in the bloc by 2020.

But critics have recently questioned whether the plan needs to be reviewed in the light of concerns about the impact of biofuels on food supplies and whether they genuinely contribute to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

"Governments need to look more carefully at the link between the acceleration in biofuels and food supply and give more thought" to biofuels policy, Sheeran said. "This land could be better used."

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