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UN warns of food shortage and unrest

Urges world leaders to work to control prices

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times / June 4, 2008

ROME - World powers must act quickly and boldly to control soaring food prices that threaten nearly 1 billion people with hunger and could trigger global social unrest, the United Nations said yesterday.

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

"Nothing is more degrading than hunger, especially when man-made," UN 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 UN officials painted a picture of potential political turmoil fueled by starvation and shortages, and of rich countries that have failed to keep promises to confront the global food crisis.

Jacques Diouf, secretary general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, scolded the world's wealthy nations for wasteful consumption and excessive spending on weapons while ignoring hungry people.

"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 percent 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.

As additional measures to resolved the crisis, 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.

Historically high fuel costs, the growing demand for biofuels, a string of poor harvests exacerbated by climate change, speculation, changing diets in Asia - these factors have combined to send food prices through the roof.

The greater expense makes staples unavailable or unaffordable to hundreds of millions of people, including an emerging category of what officials call the "new hungry." Experts say prices on many commodities, such as rice and wheat, have doubled in the past three years.

The summit is also highlighting serious disagreements over the causes of the food crisis. The use of biofuels, for example, where 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 percent of its corn crops to the production of ethanol, which 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 told 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.

"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."

US Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer argued that shifting to biofuels has reduced American dependence on oil while not endangering corn supplies because of a recent string of bumper crops. He said the shift accounts for no more than 3 percent of the spike in food prices. UN . agencies put the cost at up to 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."

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