Plans in place to fix world food crisis in place by June, UN


Source: Environment News Service (ENS)

The United Nations aims to have a comprehensive plan to tackle the global food crisis in place by the beginning of June, 'around which the institutions and leaders around the world can coalesce,' a top UN official said at a news conference here today. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said that although the breadth and complexity of the issue must be recognized, there is no need to panic.

'I think it is clear we can fix these problems. The solutions can be found; the solutions are there,' he said. 'They are very difficult, some of them, in the short term, but they can be done.'

Holmes is one of two coordinators, along with UN System Influenza Coordinator David Nabarro, of a new high-powered task force that was announced yesterday by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to organize responses to the global rise in food prices.

The formation of this task force resulted from a two-day meeting of the UN Chief Executive Board, consisting of 27 heads of UN agencies, funds and programs chaired by the secretary-general in the Swiss city of Bern.

The task force is chaired by the secretary-general and consists of the heads of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the World Trade Organization, and other organizations which will be invited to join.

The UN Chief Executive Board called on the international community to urgently provide $755 million in emergency funds needed for the UN to feed millions of hungry people worldwide, as the first of a series of concrete measures to be taken.

'We see mounting hunger and increasing evidence of malnutrition which has severely strained the capacities of humanitarian agencies to meet humanitarian needs, especially as promised funding has not yet materialized,' Ban told a news conference in Bern on Tuesday.

He warned that 'without full funding of these emergency requirements, we risk again the spectre of widespread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale.'

Protests and riots have broken out in some countries over the rising cost of basic foods, such as rice, wheat and corn.

In 2007, the food price index calculated by the Food and Agriculture Organization rose by nearly 40 percent, compared with nine percent the year before, and in the first months of 2008 prices jumped again. Nearly every agricultural commodity is part of this rising price trend.

Ban blamed escalating energy prices, lack of investment in agriculture, increasing demand, trade distortion subsidies and recurrent bad weather for the surge in prices.

The food crisis 'threatens to undo all our good work,' Ban said later Tuesday in a lecture delivered in Geneva. 'If not managed properly, it could touch off a cascade of related crises affecting trade, economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world,' he said.

But the UN chief said the situation is manageable. 'I am confident that we can deal with the global food crisis. We have the resources. We have the knowledge. We know what to do. We should therefore consider this not only as a problem but also as an opportunity,' he said.

To address the crisis, Ban called on world leaders to attend the UN High-Level Conference on Food Security, to be held in Rome from June 3 to 5.

In addition to the immediate priority of feeding the hungry, Ban emphasized the need to 'ensure food for tomorrow,' by giving small farmers the support they need to assure their next harvest.

UN agencies are already taking concrete measures to address the crisis. The Food and Agriculture Organization has proposed an emergency initiative to provide low-income countries with the seeds and inputs to boost production and is calling for $1.7 billion in funding.

In addition, the International Fund for Agricultural Development is making available an additional $200 million to poor farmers in the most affected countries to boost food production.

On the role of biofuel production in the current crisis, Holmes said, 'It is something that needs a new look in present circumstances without wanting to fall in any sense into knee-jerk reactions of saying all biofuels are bad or good. We need to look at it in a careful, sophisticated and differentiated way, between different regions of the world and between different products.'

Holmes said the crisis is not affecting every country in the same way.

'For many countries and population groups it is inconvenient, a problem for their daily budget and their purses, but it is not a matter of life and death,' he said. 'In some places and for some groups, particularly those living on less than a dollar a day, that quickly could become a matter of life and death, or certainly of increased suffering and malnutrition.'

In Washington, DC, a scientist with the International Food Policy Research Institute, IFPRI, says biofuels are a factor in rising food prices.

Joachim von Braun said in a new policy paper that developed countries should eliminate domestic biofuel subsidies and open their markets to biofuel exporters like Brazil.

'Biofuel subsidies in the United States and ethanol and biodiesel subsidies in Europe have proven to be misguided policies that have distorted world food markets,' writes von Braun. 'Subsidies on biofuel crops also act as an implicit tax on staple foods, on which the poor depend the most.'

IFPRI is one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an alliance of 64 governments, private foundations, and international and regional organizations.

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