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U.N. fears food price ‘crisis’ will worsen

NEW YORK — Hunger caused by high food prices is likely to get worse before it eases, senior U.N. officials warned yesterday.

"The global rise in food prices ... is not a temporary blip in prices caused by a crop failure here or there," Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters.

"The factors include population growth, changing dietary patterns, prosperity in countries like China and India, [diverting crops for] fuel and lower [food] reserves," Mr. Holmes said.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon struck a similar chord, saying in a speech, "We need not only short-term emergency measures to meet urgent critical needs and avert starvation in many regions across the world, but also a significant increase in long-term productivity in food grain production."

Speaking immediately after vicious riots in Haiti, Egypt, Indonesia, Cameroon, the Philippines, Burkina Faso and other poor nations where the prices of rice and other staples have soared, Mr. Holmes made it clear that the wealthier countries must increase their contributions or risk more widespread hunger, malnutrition and death.

"I would call this a global food-price crisis," Mr. Holmes told reporters. "The solution has to be in increasing food production in the world. That's the only solution there can be."

That goal is distant, though, and the $3-billion-a-year World Food Program (WFP) last month issued an emergency appeal for $500 million just to continue its existing programs in 78 countries.

World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick last weekend urged richer nations to supplement the WFP budget after economic ministers warned about the risk of instability in their regions.

"We have to put our money where our mouth is now, so that we can put food into hungry mouths," Mr. Zoellick said. "It is as stark as that."

Any extra funding would do nothing to help those who will only now find themselves unable to afford food as demand far outstrips supply.

An estimated 78 million people already are on WFP food rations, and no U.N. relief agency will estimate how many more might be added to the rolls as the crisis continues. In Afghanistan alone, officials in January appealed for $80 million to offset rising wheat prices.

Biofuel is one of the main reasons for rising demand, analysts say, noting that the amount of corn needed to make a few tanks of fuel could feed a person for a year. The United States is one of the largest consumers of corn for biofuel.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino yesterday acknowledged that the United States is taking much of the available crop.

"We recognize that moving from an oil-based economy to one that's based more on renewable or alternative fuels is going to be one that requires a transition period," she said.

Mr. Holmes stressed that short-term solutions are important as prices spike, but insisted that long-term solutions are more important.

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