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Response to food crisis must be swift, U.N. says

At a Rome meeting, rich nations are told to act boldly to deal with high prices and the threat of hunger.

June 04, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — World powers must act quickly and boldly to control soaring food prices that threaten nearly 1 billion people with hunger and could trigger devastating social unrest across the globe, the United Nations said Tuesday.

At a three-day emergency food summit, U.N. officials urged nations to eliminate trade barriers, expand biotechnology research and boost production with an annual investment of $20 billion to $30 billion.

"Nothing is more degrading than hunger, especially when man-made," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told more than 40 world leaders gathered here. Hungry people, he warned, are angry people.

Hunger breeds "social disintegration, ill health and economic decline," he said.

Ban and other senior U.N. officials painted a dire picture of potential political turmoil fueled by starvation and shortages, and of rich countries that have failed to keep promises to deal with the global food crisis.

Jacques Diouf, director-general of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, scolded the world's wealthy for wasteful consumption and excessive spending on weapons while ignoring the hungry.

"How can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it was not possible to find $30 billion a year" to feed the world's hungry, respecting "the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and the right to life," he said.

Ban said food production would have to grow by 50% by 2030 to stave off starvation. The global price tag could be at least $20 billion a year. Countries such as India and China that impose export bans because they are worried about feeding their own people only exacerbate the problem by forcing prices higher, he said.

Ban and other officials advocated continued research to improve crop yields and animal health; more seeds and fertilizers for small-stake farmers; and more immediate nutritional food relief.

Record-setting high fuel costs, the growing demand for biofuels, a string of poor harvests exacerbated by climate change, market speculation, changing diets in Asia -- all of these factors have combined to send food prices through the roof. The climbing prices make staples unavailable or unaffordable for hundreds of millions of people, including an emerging category of what officials call the "new hungry." Experts say prices of many commodities, such as rice and wheat, have doubled in the last three years.

The summit is also highlighting serious disagreements over the causes of the food crisis. The use of biofuels, for example, in which grains, sugar and palm oil are diverted to produce fuel for motor vehicles, quickly emerged as one of the more divisive topics. The United States is in the process of allocating about 25% of its corn crop to the subsidized production of ethanol, a move critics blame for part of the overall scarcity. The European Union is also subsidizing biofuel production.

"Use crops as food for people, not fuel for engines," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said at the summit.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took the opposite stand. His nation has a booming industry of ethanol production based on sugar cane, and he argues that biofuels are a more environmentally friendly energy source.

"It offends me to see fingers pointed against clean energy from biofuels, fingers soiled with oil and coal," he said. "Biofuels are not the villain menacing food security in poor countries."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer argued that shifting to biofuels has reduced U.S. dependency on oil, but does not endanger corn supplies because of a recent string of bumper crops.

Schafer said the shift accounts for no more than 3% of the increase in food prices. U.N. agencies say the cost is as much as 10 times that.

"We recognize that biofuels are a factor in the inflation of prices," Schafer said in a briefing with reporters, "but the real cause is energy and demand."

But Diouf, the FAO head, criticized U.S. policies, saying nearly $12 billion in subsidies has diverted 100 million tons of cereals away from human consumption "mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuel for vehicles."

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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