World Food Crisis Could Push Millions of People Into Poverty

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I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.  Today we tell about growing food problems around the world.

Food prices are rising in many countries.  Economic policy makers warn that the effect of rising food prices could push millions of people into poverty.  Aid organizations are concerned that they will not be able to feed the poorest people.

The rising cost of food caused riots in a number of countries in recent weeks.  International officials met this month to take steps in an effort to ease the problem.

Last Friday, the United Nations World Food Program urgently appealed for two hundred fifty-six million dollars in donations.  The World Food Program says it needs that amount in addition to the five hundred million dollars it requested last month.

The head of the U.N. agency, Josette Sheeran, said the cost of food the program buys has risen more than fifty percent in less than one year.  She says this is forcing the agency to either raise more money or help fewer people.  She says higher food prices are threatening the security of countries around the world.

Another aid agency says rising food prices are hurting efforts to fight poverty.  The Asian Development Bank has asked governments to avoid trade restrictions that might increase the crisis.

International aid officials met in Italy last week to discuss ways of dealing with food problems around the world.  The meetings involved representatives of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, CARE and Oxfam.

The aid agencies say about eight hundred fifty million people have been suffering from hunger.  And that was before the latest price increases began causing food shortages and unrest.  At least ten million people die from the effects of poor diet each year and that number is increasing.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank met earlier this month in Washington, D.C.  World Bank President Robert Zoellick said hunger, malnutrition and food policy are important issues.  He urged food donor nations to provide immediate aid to help poor countries deal with the crisis.

Mr. Zoellick said a doubling of food prices over the last three years could push one hundred million people in poor countries deeper into poverty.  And that could hurt future generations.  He also said the price of rice has increased about seventy-five percent in just two months, to near historic levels.  Wheat prices have risen one hundred twenty percent in the past year.

There are several reasons for this food crisis.  Farmers are planting more wheat and rice.  But some rice-producing countries have cut exports to protect their own supplies.  And population growth is raising demand.  Higher fuel prices are also partly to blame for rising food prices.  The International Food Policy Research Council says rising prices for fuel affect the cost of production.  Record oil prices have meant higher costs for oil-based fertilizers, and for energy and transportation.

Increased oil prices and concerns about climate change have led some farmers to raise crops for use in biofuels, such as ethanol.  These fuels are made at least partly from biological material, such as corn.  Biofuels burn cleaner than oil or gasoline.  As the price of oil rises, farmers are finding it more profitable to raise corn for ethanol, instead of for food.

The World Bank says concerns about oil prices, energy security and climate change have led governments to urge people to make and use biofuels.  That means greater demand for unprocessed materials, including wheat, soy, palm oil and corn.  Bank officials say this results in costlier food.

Some critics of biofuels say that using food-based fuel for transportation leads to a competition for food between people and cars.  Kimberly Elliott of the Center for Global Development says governments should stop placing so much importance on biofuels like ethanol.

The American state of Iowa is among the nation's leaders in growing corn and ethanol production.  Michael Ott is the head of a trade group for biofuel producers.  He says ethanol production is not really a choice between food and fuel.  He says people cannot eat the corn used to make fuel.  People eat only about five percent of the corn crop.  The rest is fed to animals or used in other products.

Kimberly Elliott says the long-term answer is to put more effort on developing new kinds of biofuels.  These include ethanol that comes from switchgrass or from the outer area of the corn plant instead of the corn itself.

Food also costs more because more people are eating meat and milk products in economies like China and India.  More grain is being used to feed farm animals.

Weather has also pushed up prices.  For example, Australia, a major wheat exporter, has received little rain recently.  Crop diseases in other parts of the world have also added to the problem.

High food prices have the most serious effect on the poorest people.  For example, World Bank President Robert Zoellick says two kilograms of rice now cost about half of the daily wages of a poor family in Bangladesh.

Christopher Barrett is an agricultural economist at Cornell University in New York State.  He says many poor farmers use more of their crops than they sell.  He says more investment is needed in agricultural research.  Another expert, Gerald Nelson, says what is needed is another "Green Revolution" to increase productivity.

Last week, President Bush released two hundred million dollars in emergency food aid.  It will be sent to countries in Africa and other areas.

The Bush administration said the President has urged his administration to develop a long-term plan that helps poor and hungry people around the world.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said his nation would double its emergency food aid to meet the food crisis.  Mr. Sarkozy said French aid would increase to about one hundred million dollars this year.  He also urged aid agencies, financial organizations, private industry and governments to work together to solve the crisis.

The food crisis has caused rioting in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.  In Haiti, days of protests against rising food prices turned violent earlier this month.  Several people were killed.  The Haitian parliament ousted the country's prime minister, Jacques Edouard Alexis.  Haiti's president, Rene Preval, approved a series of emergency aid measures.  He announced plans to work with local suppliers and international aid groups to cut the price of rice by fifteen percent.  The World Bank also said it would provide ten million dollars to help Haiti.

People in Haiti's capital say higher fuel prices and the changing value of the American dollar are to blame for the rising costs of imported foods and other goods.  Many Haitians earn less than two dollars a day.  They have suffered the most from the rising cost of rice and other products.

The United Nations World Food Program warned last week that North Korea is also facing a food crisis.  The main reasons are food price increases and the lasting effects of severe flooding last year.  U.N. officials said prices for foods like corn and grain have at least doubled since last year.  They say urgent action is needed to prevent a serious tragedy in North Korea.

But there was some good news from another country.  Bangladesh says its current rice harvest is very successful.  Rice is the main crop in Bangladesh.  The majority of the population works in agriculture.

The government has ordered the country's five hundred thousand-member army to eat potatoes instead of rice and wheat.  This is meant to guarantee that civilians have enough rice to eat.

A World Food Program official in Bangladesh says the general population will also need to eat more potatoes, which is not a traditional food.  Bangladesh suffered two serious floods and a powerful storm in the past year.  The natural disasters ruined several million tons of food grains.

This program was written by Shelley Gollust and produced by Mario Ritter.  I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember.  Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are at voaspecialenglish.com.  Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

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