, June 3, 2008 (ENS) - "You all know about the severity and scale of the global food crisis," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told world leaders gathered today in Rome for the opening of the High-level Conference on World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy.
"Before this emergency, more than 854 million people in the world were short of food. The World Bank estimates that this figure could rise by a further 100 million," Ban said. "The poorest of the poor already spend two thirds or more of their income on food. They will be hardest hit."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (Photo courtesy Earth Negotations Bulletin)
"I have seen this for myself," said the secretary-general. "In Liberia recently, I met people who normally would buy rice by the bag. Today, they buy it by the cup. In Côte d'Ivoire, the leaders of a country recovering from conflict and trying to build a democracy told me how they feared that food riots could undo all their hard work."
"We fear the same in other countries that, with United Nations help, have made gains in recent years: Afghanistan, Haiti and Liberia, to name but a few. And let us not forget the millions who suffer in silence and will go hungry unnoticed," said Ban.
"Nothing is more degrading than hunger, especially when manmade. It breeds anger, social disintegration, ill-health and economic decline," the secretary-general said.
"If not handled properly, this issue could trigger a cascade of other crises - affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world," Ban warned.
Food production needs to rise by 50 percent by the year 2030 to meet the rising demand, he said, calling on world leaders to increase food production and revitalize agriculture to ensure long-term food security.
The conference is hosted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, at its headquarters in Rome.
FAO head Dr. Jacques Diouf (Photo courtesy ENB)
In an impassioned speech, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf appealed to world leaders for US$30 billion a year to re-launch agriculture and avert future threats of conflicts over food.
In 2006, Dr. Diouf said, the world spent US$1,200 billion on arms while food wasted in a single country could be valued at US$100 billion. Excess consumption by the world's obese amounts to US$20 billion, he said.
"Against that backdrop, how can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it was not possible to find US$30 billion a year to enable 862 million hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and thus the right to life?" Dr. Diouf asked.
Conference participants are discussing short-term solutions as well as new strategies to deal with the effects of global warming, growing demand for biofuels, and a disintegrating agriculture sector in many of the poorer countries. They are expected to issue a declaration at the close of the meeting on Thursday.
The conference opened its three day session today by electing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as conference chair.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano stressed that the food crisis threatens the progress achieved so far towards the Millenium Development Goals, a set of eight goals that the world community has agreed to reach by 2015, including to reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
Inflation of food costs has put meals like this beyond the means of hundreds of millions of people. (Photo by Jessica Merz)
Despite the World Food Summit's solemn pledge in 1996 to halve world food hunger by 2015, resources to finance agricultural programs in developing countries have not only failed to rise but have decreased since then.
Napolitano said relying on market values will not be enough to overcome the crisis and called for policies and actions set within, and implemented through, the United Nations.
Dr. Diouf recalled that it would have cost only US$24 billion a year to fund an anti-hunger program prepared for the second World Food Summit held in 2002.
In cooperation with FAO, the developing countries did prepare policies, strategies and programs that, if they had received appropriate funding, would have ensured world food security, Diouf said.
But, he said, "Aid to agriculture fell from US$8 billion in 1984 to US$3.4 billion in 2004, representing a reduction in real terms of 58 percent."
Agriculture's share of Official Development Assistance fell from 17 percent in 1980 to three percent in 2006, he said.
"Regrettably, the international community only reacts when the media beam the distressing spectacle of world suffering into the homes of the wealthy countries," said Dr. Diouf.
President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak (Photo courtesy ENB)
At the summit today, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak advocated a network of social solidarity, and an international code of conduct which rejects biofuel subsidies.
Brazilian President Lula da Silva supported sustainable biofuel production, attributing the current food crisis to high oil prices and protectionist agricultural subsidies.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe blamed western countries for his people's ever-increasing food woes, and defended his controversial policy of taking land from white farmers to distribute amongst black settlers, many of whom were not farmers.
"Over the past decade, Zimbabwe has democratized the land ownership patterns in the country, with over 300,000 previously landless families now proud landowners. Previously this land was owned by a mere 4,000 farmers, mainly of British stock," Mugabe told the summit.
"In retaliation for the measures we took to empower the black majority, the United Kingdom has mobilised her friends and allies in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand to impose illegal economic sanctions against Zimbabwe," said Mugabe.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (Photo courtesy ENB)
"Western-funded NGOs also use food as a political weapon with which to campaign against government, especially in the rural areas," alleged Mugabe.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called Mugabe's presence in Rome "obscene," saying, "This is the person who has presided over the starvation of his people. This is the person who has used food aid in a politically motivated way."
In a message delivered by Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State of the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI called the right to food an ethical issue, and asked participants to consider the dignity of all people.
Addressing the summit today, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said, "As the world's largest donor of food assistance, the United States will continue to coordinate its own efforts closely with UN agencies, the G8, the World Bank, and other international partners."
The United States is now projecting to spend nearly $5 billion in 2008 and 2009 to fight global hunger, he said.
President George W. Bush announced the most recent action by the United States to respond to this crisis on May 1 when he requested from Congress $770 million in new funds to support food aid and development programs.
When combined with the estimated $200 million authorized on April 14, this brings the U.S. response to nearly $1 billion in additional funds to further ongoing U.S. efforts, Schafer said.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer (Photo courtesy ENB)
At a news conference Monday, Schafer said increased biofuels production is but one of many contributors to increased food prices. Other factors include rising energy costs, poor harvests in major grain producing countries, and greater use of export restrictions, he said.
Schafer said his agency is anticipating a 43 percent increase in food price inflation globally this year alone. "We can identify two to three percent of that price increase that is driven by biofuels," he said.
Schafer defended the use of genetic engineering to boost food production in the face of criticism from environmental groups and many countries that have banned or discouraged the import of genetically modified seeds, crops and trees. "We have proven the safety environmentally and from a human standpoint food safety issue that GMOs are fine to use," Schafer said.
Yasuo Fukuda, prime minister of Japan, announced US$100 million in emergency food aid, to be distributed by July.
Last week Prime Minister Fukuda told a conference on African development in Yokohama with 52 African nations represented that Japan would provide the expertise to bring about a "Green Revolution" in Africa to make the continent food secure.
"As Africa seeks to achieve its own Green Revolution, I would like to put out a call for action, aiming to double the current rice production output of 14 million tons, over the next ten years," the Japanese prime minister said.
Addressing participants today, Secretary-General Ban shared some of the recommendations of the his recently convened High-Level Task Force on Food Security.
"First, we must improve vulnerable people's access to food and take immediate steps to increase food availability in their communities," Ban said.
President of Brazil Lula da Silva (Photo courtesy ENB)
The Task Force recommended expanding food assistance through food aid, vouchers or cash; scaling up nutritional support and improving safety nets and social protection programmes to help the most vulnerable; and boosting smallholder farmer food production through an urgent injection of seeds and fertilizers.
The Task Force further recommended improving rural infrastructure and links to markets, and expanding microcredit programs; adjusting trade and taxation policies to minimize export restrictions and import tariffs, and helping the free flow of agricultural goods; and supporting balance-of-payments of net food importing countries where necessary.
The FAO has called for $1.7 billion in new funding to provide low income countries with seeds and other agricultural support and has initiated a program to counter soaring food prices.
The UN World Food Programme, the world's largest food aid agency, has raised the additional $755 million it needs to meet existing commitments this year.
"We owe a great debt of thanks to 31 generous donor-nations, most notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," said Ban. "It will, of course, need significant extra resources to respond to new needs arising from the impact of the food crisis."
The International Fund for Agricultural Development is giving an additional $200 million to poor farmers in the most affected countries and will want to do more as further resources become available.
The World Bank has established a new $1.2 billion rapid financing facility to address immediate needs and boost food production, including $200 million in grants targeted at the world's poorest nations.
Ban said he has set aside a reserve of $100 million from the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund to help fund new humanitarian needs arising from soaring food prices.
"I want us to have a shared understanding of both the problems and solutions," said the secretary-general, "and to move forward together, with urgency."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.
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