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The hunger threat

Skyrocketing food prices are destabilizing governments. Long-term solutions are needed.

April 17, 2008

While the United States has been focusing on new security threats such as terrorism and bioweapons, an ancient cause of human strife is re-emerging. Global hunger was supposed to have been tamed by the Green Revolution, freer markets and wealthier consumers, but the World Bank now estimates that 33 countries are gripped by social unrest because of soaring food and energy prices. In just two months, rice prices have risen 75% globally, and wheat prices are up 120% compared with a year ago. That's a calamity for the billion people who live in extreme poverty -- and for many of their governments. This month alone, food riots have broken out in Indonesia, the Philippines and Cameroon, and five people were killed in clashes in Haiti that brought down the prime minister.

The U.N. World Food Program has called for $500 million in emergency donations, and President Bush responded Monday with $200 million. Despite flak from the farm lobby, the White House is sticking to its position that the food should be purchased locally, where possible, to cut the transportation and distribution costs that can eat up half of the food-aid budget. To stretch the aid money further, Congress should buck the labor unions and lift the requirement that American food aid be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, April 18, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 28 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Hunger: A Thursday editorial on rising food prices identified the president of the World Bank as Robert H. Zoellick. He is Robert B. Zoellick.

But short-term emergency aid won't be enough. There are many causes for the run-up in prices: drought and disease, probably worsened by climate change; rising demand in India and China; rising demand for crops to make biofuels, which some developing countries call a "crime against humanity"; the fall of the U.S. dollar, which makes dollar-denominated food more costly; and speculators pulling money out of the stock market and real estate derivatives and pouring it into the commodities market. So higher prices will probably persist -- even if the U.S. and Europe were to cut subsidies for ethanol made from foodstuffs.

Some of the best thinking about the global food problem is being done at the World Bank under its activist new president, Robert H. Zoellick. He has doubled agricultural assistance to Africa and is calling for a "new deal" that combines emergency food aid with long-term efforts to boost production in developing nations. An accomplished former deputy secretary of State and U.S. trade representative, Zoellick knows a thing or two about how protectionism distorts international markets. He shouldn't hesitate to haul his bully pulpit up to Capitol Hill and ask Congress to correct some of the most misguided U.S. agricultural policies -- starting with the expensive and environmentally destructive farm bill.

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