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UN food agency warns of eroding capacity to serve

The UN food agency says dwindling global food stocks are threatening its ability to keep millions from starvation.

world Updated: Apr 25, 2008 11:51 IST

The United Nations food agency has sounded a fresh alarm that fast rising food prices across the globe are eroding its capacity to serve millions of people already dependent on it and the situation could worsen with millions being pushed into poverty forcing them to seek its help.

With the major exporters, including India, banning rice exports, shortages are expected to be felt around the world.

Soaring food prices -- up 55 per cent from June 2007 to February 2008, and dwindling global food stocks due to more world food consumption than production are seriously threatening the United Nations ability to keep millions from starvation.

Growing demand for bio-fuels, needs of rising population, growing middle class in India and China with increasing purchasing power and erratic weather are among the reasons that have pushed the food prices up to the level where 100 million people are being pushed into extreme poverty needing international help at a time when international donors are signs of fatigue.

Reports from across the world show that some non governmental organizations are already cutting their aid programmes which could put further pressure on the UN. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) says it can buy 40 per cent less food than it could last June with the same contribution.

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran, in a video conference from Rome, voiced concern that as many as 100 million people face being pushed deeper into poverty, noting that rice prices in Asia have doubled in the last month alone.

"We're also concerned because this isn't just an issue of hunger, but also an issue of instability," Sheeran said, as protests against soaring food prices were held in dozens of countries.

The additional challenge is of adequate supply, with at least 40 countries imposing export bans on food, impacting importing countries, which are most affected by the food crisis.

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.

She said 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 but can also reverse or negatively impact child-related social indicators," she warned.

At present, the agency's most critical priority was to ensure food for people living on less than 50 cents a day, including internally displaced persons and refugees, particularly infants under age two.

In what she called the "new face of hunger", many millions of people had become urgently in need of food in the past six months and many who had been vulnerable - especially young children and pregnant women -- were now at risk of becoming permanently malnourished.