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London summit tackles 'tsunami' of rising food prices

by Staff Writers
London (AFP) April 22, 2008
The world faces a "silent tsunami" of soaring food prices and more must be done to help secure future supply, the UN food agency said Tuesday as experts gathered in London for a special summit on the problem.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said an extra 100 million people who previously did not require help could now not afford to buy food.

It said the soaring prices threatened anti-poverty and health improvement initiatives in the world's poorest nations and left a 755-million-dollar hole in the organisation's 2.9-billion-dollar budget.

"This is the new face of hunger -- the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are," said WFP executive director Josette Sheeran in a statement.

"The response calls for large-scale, high-level action by the global community, focused on emergency and longer-term solutions."

Food prices have risen rapidly since the last quarter of 2007, blamed in varying degrees on rising populations, the use of biofuels to combat climate change, higher demand from developing countries, natural disasters and higher fuel prices.

Price hikes for staples such as rice -- which is now nearing the 1,000 dollars per tonne mark, more than double the cost in early March -- have led to riots and protests in a number of developing countries.

In the latest unrest, demonstrators took to the streets in the Afghan city of Jalalabad and the Gabonese capital Libreville on Tuesday.

The Asian Development Bank, which believes the increases mark the end of the cheap food era, said it was a distribution rather than a food shortage problem, while Thailand has attacked critics for laying the blame at biofuel producers.

Sheeran, who described the situation as a "wake-up" call about the threats to food supply, refused to pinpoint one reason for the crisis, instead stressing the urgent need for action by governments and world bodies.

She was later one of 25 experts in the field who attended a summit on the subject hosted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at his Downing Street offices.

A statement from Brown's office released after the meeting said that delegates pledged to work with the G8 and EU towards a global strategy to tackle price rises and increase support for the world's poorest nations.

There was also agreement that a World Trade Organisation deal could help developing countries, particularly in agriculture and that there should be a review in the approach to biofuels.

"We need to look closely at the impact on food prices and the environment of different production methods and to ensure we are more selective in our support," the statement read.

"If our UK review shows that we need to change our approach, we will also push for change in EU biofuels targets."

Brown has vowed to look again at government targets for use of biofuels, which although developed to help cut greenhouse gas emissions, have been blamed for global warming.

They have also cited by some for fuelling the food price surge as they use land and resources that would otherwise be given over to food production -- Oxfam, for one, called for governments to scrap mandatory targets on biofuels.

In Bangkok Tuesday, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej attacked the World Bank and the UN for criticising biofuel producing nations for soaring food prices while sparing oil exporters.

Britain earlier announced a 910-million-dollar aid package, including an 800-million-dollar, five-year commitment to agricultural research, in a move welcomed by aid and development agencies.

The European Commission in Strasbourg then announced a further 117.25 million euros (185.5 million dollars) in food aid, having already pledged the EC's biggest-ever food aid package -- 160 million euros.

"Food price rises pose a significant threat to poor people in developing countries, many of whom spend more than half their income on food already and will face hunger and even starvation unless we act now," said Phil Bloomer, British charity Oxfam's director of policy.

"For this reason the money announced today by the government is welcome, as is their recognition of the need for both short and long term responses."

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Drought hits millions in Thai rice region: government
Bangkok (AFP) April 21, 2008
More than 10 million people in parts of Thailand's rice bowl region have been hit by drought, the government said Monday, causing further concerns as prices of the staple grain soar.

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