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U.N. chief calls food price rise a global crisis

A sharp rise in food prices has developed into a global crisis, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday.
Indonesia Food
A woman rushes for free food during a food distribution sponsored by the United Development Party in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday.Achmad Ibrahim / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A sharp rise in food prices has developed into a global crisis, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday.

Ban said the U.N. and all members of the international community are very concerned, and immediate action is needed.

He spoke to reporters at U.N. offices in Austria. He was meeting with the nation's top leaders for talks on how the United Nations and European Union can forge closer ties.

Ban’s statement came a day after the World Food Program appealed for hundreds of millions of dollars to cope with rising food prices that have sparked protests and food riots and led to bans on food exports in dozens of countries.

Josette Sheeran, the WFP’s executive director, said the U.N. agency is facing a 40 percent increase in the cost of food and requests for food aid from countries unable to cope with the rising prices.

'New face of hunger'
It expects additional requests from nations like Haiti whose citizens are becoming part of “the new face of hunger,” she told a video news conference from Rome with U.N. correspondents in New York. Riots in Haiti this month cost Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis his job and set back international efforts to stabilize the country.

WFP usually helps between 80 and 90 million people a year with funds it raises entirely from voluntary contributions. It traditionally helps refugees and internally displaced people in places like Darfur as well and victims of natural disasters.

Sheeran said WFP’s initial budget of $3.1 billion needed an additional $755 million just to cope with the increase in food prices. It also needs an extra $418 million for new requests including funds to help feed “2.5 million newly urgently hungry people” in Afghanistan, and new Iraqi refugees in Syria and elsewhere, she said.

That brings WFP’s needs for 2008 to at least $4.3 billion. The agency’s New York spokeswoman, Bettina Leuscher, said so far it has received just $1 billion.

The agency is asking for $280 million urgently, or, Sheeran warned, “we will need to be rolling back in the coming weeks our core work that’s already assessed and already decided.”

“So we are in a situation of making some heartbreaking choices,” she said. “We are really going through our program and looking at where the greatest vulnerability is and which programs we can keep whole until we can raise that full amount.”

Sheeran said this year will mark the first time that the majority of WFP’s new needs “are coming because of this kind of market shock.”

“I have called this the new face of hunger because we are seeing many millions of people who were not in the urgent category even six months ago being pushed into the urgent category — and we are seeing many people who were already vulnerable being put at great risk for malnutrition,” she said.

Riots, export bans
Sheeran noted that this increased hunger has led to instability.

“We are also concerned because this isn’t only an issue of hunger but one of stability as we’ve seen with more than 34 countries having the protests and the food riots in recent months,” she said.

Sheeran said the price increases have created an additional challenge for countries who important much of their food, with “up to 40 countries now that have some sort of exporting bans.”

This price hike has affected WFP’s ability to secure food, she said, explaining that some sellers are breaking contracts and paying a 5 percent default charge because they can get more money elsewhere.

Nonetheless, Sheeran said, “I will say I’m an optimist because the world knows how to produce enough food.”