updated 4/3/2008 12:59:25 PM ET 2008-04-03T16:59:25

A U.N. food aid agency announced an "extraordinary emergency appeal" to donor countries for $500 million to prevent cutbacks in its global operations because of soaring food and fuel costs.

The Rome-based World Food Program said last week it had sent a letter to governments last week requesting money by May 1 so it will not have to start cutting rations to some of the world's most impoverished regions. WFP officials said the funding gap was growing weekly.

The head of the WFP, the world's largest humanitarian agency, said the unprecedented situation meant some of the world's poorest faced going hungry.

The steadily climbing cost of food means that people are "simply being priced out of food market," Executive Director Josette Sheeran told reporters in a conference call.

The agency estimates that in Darfur alone it needs to provide emergency food for as many as 3 million people daily. The organization gives food to as many as 70 million people worldwide.

WFP needs to buy food several months before it can get it to the hungry. If extra money does not come through before May, "depending how big the gap is ... it could be quite a dramatic effect" in how much aid can be delivered, Sheeran said.

Earlier this month, Sheeran said that the high prices of food and oil have been swelling the ranks of the hungry since last summer, and cautioned that the crisis would continue for several years.

Sheeran said that a 40 percent rise in the cost of fuel and commodities such as grain since mid-2007 have raised the cost of food and transport, causing the shortfall in the agency's 2008 budget.

She said that the shortfall as of Feb. 25 meant the agency needs an extra $375 million for food and $125 million to transport it.

In the letter sent to donor countries, Sheeran said that WFP was trying to deal with the soaring prices by buying 80 percent of food in local and regional markets.

"But even with our mitigation efforts, the cost of our food purchases has risen 55 percent since June 2007," she wrote. "We urge your government to act quickly on this request so that we may avoid cutting the rations for those who rely on the world to stand by them in times of abject need."

Sheeran said Monday that Afghanistan was among the most vulnerable nations, where the difficulties of procuring food aggravated by fighting there.

She has urged governments to deal quickly with issues of rising food costs. She has cited recent food riots in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal and Morocco.

Sheeran said she will discuss the issue with African finance and economy ministers at a meeting next week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Corn, soybeans, sugar cane and other crops are seen as sources of clean and cheap biofuels. This means less grain is available for human consumption, driving up prices for basic foodstuffs.

Another U.N. agency based in Rome, the Food and Agriculture Organization, estimates that 100 million tons of cereals are diverted to the production of biofuels each year.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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