Soaring food prices jeopardizing UN's ability to feed the world's hungry

24 April 2008
Josette Sheeran, WFP Executive Director

The accelerating rise in food prices worldwide is threatening the work of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to feed the millions of hungry people around the globe, the head of the agency said today.

“We can buy 40 per cent less food than we could last June with the same contribution,” WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said in a video conference from Rome, voicing concern that as many as 100 million people face being pushed deeper into poverty.

The aggressive price increases – caused by such factors as income growth, rising oil prices, increasingly severe weather and trade policy, among others – began last June, she noted. In the past month alone, the price of rice in Asia has nearly doubled.

“If people don't have resiliency it makes it very difficult to adjust,” she said, adding that those in the developing world spend more than 70 per cent of their household income on food already.

In countries where people subsist on less than $1 per day, many have cut back on meals, only eating several times per week.

“We're also concerned because this isn't just an issue of hunger, but also an issue of instability,” Ms. Sheeran pointed out, with protests against soaring food prices having been held in dozens of countries.

Furthermore, there is the additional challenge of adequate supply, with up to 40 countries now imposing export bans on food, impacting importing countries, which are most impacted by the food crisis.

Those most at risk are children and mothers; refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); pastoralists; and the urban poor.

The Executive Director also cautioned that farmers are joining the ranks of the “new face of hunger,” the millions being pushed into the urgent hunger category. Despite the higher prices farmers can get for their products, many do not have access to credit or any form of support and are therefore unable to afford the inputs required and must plant less.

In Kenya's Rift Valley, non-IDP farmers are planting only one-third of what they did last year due to soaring prices of supplies such as fertilizer.

Along with governments, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), WFP is pursuing a three-track global strategy for the current crisis. As part of an immediate response, it seeks to assess needs and identify the newly vulnerable and target its distribution of food in extreme situations.

In the medium term, WFP hopes to provide seeds, fertilizer and other key inputs, as well as expand its cash and voucher initiatives, while in the longer term, it seeks policy reform, bolstered agricultural production and investment in sustainable safety nets.

Last week, the agency announced it faced a $755 million shortfall – in addition to its budget of over $3 billion for 2008 – to feed the hungry worldwide due to food and fuel price increases.

UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Ann M. Veneman also expressed concern over the “negative social and economic impacts” of climbing food prices, particularly in low-income and least developed nations.

In a statement, she observed that the rising prices will most affect the most vulnerable, including people depending on humanitarian assistance, orphans, those affected by HIV and AIDS, refugees and poor urban families.

“The increase in food prices may not only slow down progress towards achieving health and nutrition related Millennium Development Goals [MDGs], but can also reverse or negatively impact child-related social indicators,” Ms. Veneman remarked.

Calling for evidence-based interventions, she said that the most pressing priority is to assist already malnourished children and prevent the deterioration of the nutrition situation of affected populations.


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