- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — Many of the world’s poorest people are unable to get enough food because of soaring prices partly caused by the use of food crops to produce biofuels, the head of the U.N. food agency said.

“We’re seeing more people hungry and at greater numbers than before,” Josette Sheeran, executive director of the Rome-based World Food Program, said in an interview yesterday.

Higher oil prices are contributing to steeper food prices by boosting transportation costs, and severe weather is hitting many countries and hurting crop output, she said.

“We’re seeing many people being priced out of the food markets for the first time,” said Mrs. Sheeran, who was at U.N. headquarters for a General Assembly debate on global warming.

“For the world’s most vulnerable, it’s extremely urgent,” she added.

The World Food Program provides food aid around the globe. Mrs. Sheeran said the amount of food the agency can afford to buy for hungry children is down 40 percent from five years ago.

One of the problems is the drive to use corn, soybeans, sugar cane and other crops to produce biofuels, which is seen as a cleaner and cheaper way to meet soaring energy needs than greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels. That has led to reduced availability of grain, driving up prices for basic food products in many countries.

Another U.N. agency in Rome, the Food and Agriculture Organization, said yesterday that about 100 million tons of cereal grains are being diverted to the production of biofuels each year. Nearly all of that is corn — 12 percent of all the corn consumed around the globe, the FAO said.

The agency, which promotes agriculture improvements, said the biofuel uses and growing demand for food have pushed world food stocks to their lowest levels since 1982.

It estimated that food stocks would total 405 million tons at the end of the current season, a 5 percent drop from the start.

Mrs. Sheeran said more must be done to supply food to the neediest while markets adjust to the biofuel demand.

“More food will be produced. Farmers will respond, and maybe there’ll be investment in the African farmer for the first time, for example, in many decades,” she said.

“When that happens, we’ll get increased food in the food-supply system. But there’s a lag, so we have people very vulnerable right now who can’t afford the food.”