- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

The president of the World Bank, calling for a “New Deal” in global food policy, yesterday urged immediate action to deal with mounting food prices that have caused hunger and deadly violence in several countries.

Robert Zoellick said the international community has “to put our money where our mouth is” and act now to help hungry people. “It is as stark as that.”

He called on governments to rapidly carry out commitments to provide the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) with $500 million in emergency aid it needs by May 1.

“It is critical that governments confirm their commitments as soon as possible and others begin to commit,” Mr. Zoellick said. Prices have only risen further since the WFP issued that appeal, so it is urgent that governments step up, he said.

Rising prosperity and demand for grain in countries such as China and India, as well as the diversion of crops to make biofuels, are stoking dramatic increases in most agricultural commodities and analysts see no end in sight. Rice prices hit a record last week, and have doubled over the past year and risen fivefold since 2001.

China, Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia and India, accounting for more than a third of global rice exports, curbed exports in order to tamp local prices this year. Indonesia said Friday it soon will ban rice exports except through a government agency. Global rice stockpiles have been cut nearly in half. Australia’s rice crop was withered by drought this year.

China and India are the world’s largest producers of rice, but because of strong internal demand, only India is among the top five rice exporters. India ranks fourth behind Thailand, Vietnam and the United States.

Unrest has spread from Asia to South America.

After a meeting of the bank’s policy-setting committee, Mr. Zoellick said that the fall of the government in Haiti after a wave of deadly rioting and looting underscores the importance of quick international action. A U.N. police officer was killed Saturday in Haiti’s capital.

Mr. Zoellick said that international finance meetings are “often about talk,” but he has noted a “greater sense of intensity and focus” among ministers. Now, he said, they have to “translate it into greater action.”

He said the bank is granting an additional $10 million to Haiti for feeding programs, “and I understand others are looking to help.”

Mr. Zoellick said the bank was responding to needs in a number of other countries with conditional cash transfer programs, providing food in workplaces and seeds for planting in the new season.

He said by a rough analysis the bank estimates that a doubling of food prices over the past three years could potentially push people in low-income countries deeper into poverty.

Mr. Zoellick spoke as the bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, wound up two days of meetings that dealt with the financial crises roiling global markets and rising food and energy prices.

The head of the IMF also sounded the alarm on food prices, warning that if they remain high there will be dire consequences for people in many developing countries, especially in Africa.

IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said progress in recent years on development can be destroyed by rising food prices, which can lead to starvation and shake the stability of governments, even if they have nothing to do with the increase in food costs.

“We are facing a huge problem,” he said.

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