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Food Crisis Is Depicted As 'Silent Tsunami'

Josette Sheeran of the World Food Program holds up a cup to illustrate the food ration given to children.
Josette Sheeran of the World Food Program holds up a cup to illustrate the food ration given to children. (By Lefteris Pitarakis -- Associated Press)
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"We hope we have reached a plateau, but this is a rapidly evolving situation," she said, adding that the WFP was urgently seeking contributions to make up the difference as the situation becomes more dire in poor countries such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan that are heavily dependent on imported food.

Sheeran said the WFP's main focus was on the "ultra-poor," those who earn less than 50 cents a day. She said rising food prices meant millions of people earning less than $2 a day were giving up health care and education. Those living on less than $1 a day were giving up meat and vegetables, and those living on less than 50 cents were facing increasingly desperate hunger.

Hunger and anger have led to violence recently in Haiti, where food riots this month resulted in several deaths, as well as Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia and Senegal. Argentina's attempt to control rising prices led to a strike by producers.

The WFP is already being forced to cut back on school feeding programs that serve 20 million children, Sheeran said. Without more emergency funding, she said, a feeding program in Cambodia would be eliminated and programs in places such as Kenya and Tajikistan would be cut in half.

"These are heartbreaking decisions to have to make," Sheeran said. "We need all the help we can get from the governments of the world who can afford to do so."

Sheeran said rising fuel and fertilizer prices were adding to the misery. She said she recently returned from a trip to Kenya's Rift Valley, where the cost of fertilizer has climbed 135 percent since December.

That increase, along with rising prices for seed and diesel, led farmers to plant only one-third the crops they planted last year -- a pattern being repeated around the world, she said.

"Farmers have no access to credit, so when prices go up, they can't afford to plant," she said, urging governments, particularly in developing nations, to invest more in programs to support domestic agriculture.

"I think much of the world is waking up to the fact that food doesn't spontaneously show up on grocery store shelves," she said.

In some parts of the world, Sheeran said, the WFP needs to provide food to people who have none. In other countries, she said, food is plentiful but prices have risen so much that people cannot afford it. She said the WFP is considering programs in those countries to provide cash assistance or emergency food vouchers.

Food experts have said such programs could help lower domestic food prices without hurting local farmers -- the kind of balance Sheeran said WFP officials are trying to strike as they deal with a crisis that has different faces in different parts of the world.

The increasing use of crops to produce biofuels has been criticized as contributing to food shortages. While Britain and the European Union have called for greater use of biofuels, Brown said Tuesday that "we need to look closely at the impact on food prices and the environment."

"If our U.K. review shows that we need to change our approach, we will also push for change in E.U. biofuels targets," he said.

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