- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

NEW YORK | World leaders, alarmed over the spiraling number of hungry in their countries and at their borders, Tuesday urged each other to contribute money, ideas and compassion to feed an estimated 950 million people.

The presidents of Brazil, Iran and Zimbabwe, among others, joined scientists, humanitarian relief experts and diplomats to forge immediate responses and long-term ideas to head off what many consider to be a brewing catastrophe.

The three-day meeting was convened in Rome by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and attended by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warned that food production must rise 50 percent by 2030, or risk global instability.

“Nothing is more degrading than hunger, especially when it is manmade,” Mr. Ban said. “It breeds anger, social disintegration, ill-health and economic decline.”

The price of food has spiked in recent months, sparking riots in four dozen countries as people are no longer able to afford meat, dairy, and even locally grown rice. The price of some staples has doubled in three years.

Experts say the warning signs have been visible for nearly two years, with crop production lagging behind expanding demand.

Demand from prosperous and populous nations like India and China has surged just as corn crops have been diverted for biofuels and climate change is ravaging arable land.

Despite the desperate and global nature of the problem, many leaders cast hunger as a local political matter.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe - whose fertile country was plunged into crisis after his 2000 constitutional amendment to confiscate white-owned farms and distribute the land among black former soldiers - blamed his people’s hunger on what he called Britain’s political meddling.

European sanctions leveled in response to the land confiscations are an attempt to “cripple Zimbabwe’s economy and thereby effect illegal regime change in our country,” he said. Despite the European travel ban, Mr. Mugabe was allowed to attend Tuesday’s gathering because the event was a U.N.-sponsored conference. Protesters met him outside.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose presence triggered a shower of leaflets from protesters in the balcony, called for global regulation on food prices and more equitable distribution. He also referred to Israel as “a falsified regime.”

There was plenty of finger-pointing, as rich and poor nations emphasized different contributing elements of the crisis and suggested fixes.

“Increased biofuels production is but one of many contributors to increased food prices. Other factors contributing to food price increase include rising energy costs, poor harvests in major grain producing countries and greater use of export restrictions,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer.

He stressed the need for farmers to have access to new technologies - such as fertilizers, genetically modified seeds and better soil management, among other agricultural innovations.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - whose country is a leading producer of sugarcane for fuel - angrily defended biofuels. He said that rich countries’ farm subsidies are hurting poor agricultural nations.

The Rome summit is meant as a first step to global cooperation. Organizers hope that subsequent meetings of the Group of Eight in June and the U.N. General Assembly in September will help generate more cash and ideas.

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