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UN: High food prices unleash silent tsunami

A ”silent tsunami” unleashed by costlier food threatens 100-million people, the United Nations said on Tuesday, but views differed as to how to stop it.

The Asian Development Bank said there was enough food to go round, and the key was to help the poor afford it. It said Asian governments that have curbed food exports were overreacting.

In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Britain would seek changes to European Union biofuels targets if it was shown that planting crops for fuel was driving up food prices — a day after the bloc stood by its plans to boost biofuel use.

Britain also pledged $900-million to help the UN World Food Programme (WFP) alleviate immediate problems and address longer-term solutions to ”help put food on the table for nearly a billion people going hungry across the world”.

The WFP, whose head, Josette Sheeran, took part in a meeting of experts Brown called on Tuesday to discuss the crisis, said a ”silent tsunami” threatened to plunge over 100-million people into hunger.

”This is the new face of hunger — the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are,” Sheeran said ahead of the meeting.

”The response calls for large-scale, high-level action by the global community, focused on emergency and longer-term solutions.”

The WFP said this was the biggest challenge in its 45-year history.

Riots in poor Asian and African countries have followed steep rises in food prices caused by many factors — more expensive oil, bad weather, rising disposable incomes boosting demand and the conversion of land to grow crops to be turned into biofuel.

”The era of cheap food is over,” said Rajat Nag, managing director general of the Asian Development Bank.

‘Mass murder’

Rice from Thailand, the world’s top exporter, has more than doubled this year but Nag urged Asian governments not to distort markets with export curbs, and instead use fiscal measures to help the poor.

”We want to temper what we think is a bit of an overreaction. There is still enough supply,” he said.

India and Vietnam have limited exports, hoping to tame prices at home — while goading them higher abroad.

”Banning of exports is no different from hoarding at a national level,” Nag said.

The comments from Asian Development Bank echoed recent statements by the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, urging countries to ensure more funds in the hands of the poor to buy food, instead of resorting to protectionist trade barriers.

Other aid officials have used more dramatic language.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said dearer food risked wiping out progress on cutting poverty and his special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, said rises were leading to ”mass murder”.

Brown raised further doubts about the wisdom of using crops to help produce fuel, an idea whose recent popularity in the US and Europe has been dented by fears it harms the environment and makes food more expensive.

”We need to look closely at the impact on food prices and the environment of different production methods and to ensure we are more selective in our support [for biofuels],” he said.

”If our United Kingdom review shows that we need to change our approach, we will also push for change in EU biofuels targets.”

Brown called for more research into higher-yielding crop varieties that can withstand harsh climates and for an agricultural revolution in developing countries.

A global trade agreement that opened up markets in rich countries and cut farm subsidies was also needed, he said. — Reuters

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