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Food Crisis Is Depicted As 'Silent Tsunami'

Sharp Price Hikes Leave Many Millions in Hunger

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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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 23, 2008; Page A01

LONDON, April 22 -- More than 100 million people are being driven deeper into poverty by a "silent tsunami" of sharply rising food prices, which have sparked riots around the world and threaten U.N.-backed feeding programs for 20 million children, the top U.N. food official said Tuesday.

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"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," Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), said at a London news conference. "The world's misery index is rising."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, hosting Sheeran and other private and government experts at his 10 Downing Street offices, said the growing food crisis has pushed prices to their highest levels since 1945 and rivals the current global financial turmoil as a threat to world stability.

"Hunger is a moral challenge to each one of us as global citizens, but it is also a threat to the political and economic stability of poor nations around the world," Brown said, adding that 25,000 people a day are dying of conditions linked to hunger.

"With one child dying every five seconds from hunger-related causes, the time to act is now," Brown said, pledging $60 million in emergency aid to help the WFP feed the poor in Africa and Asia, where in some nations the prices of many food staples have doubled in the past six months.

Brown said the "vast" food crisis was threatening to reverse years of progress to create stronger middle classes around the world and lift millions of people out of poverty.

Prices for basic food supplies such as rice, wheat and corn have skyrocketed in recent months, driven by a complex set of factors including sharply rising fuel prices, droughts in key food-producing countries, ballooning demand in emerging nations such as China and India, and the diversion of some crops to produce biofuels.

Sheeran noted that the United States, which she said provides half of the world's food assistance, has pledged $200 million in emergency food aid and that Congress was considering an additional appropriation.

Holding up the kind of plastic cup that the WFP uses to feed millions of children, Sheeran told reporters that the price of a metric ton of rice in parts of Asia had risen from $460 to $1,000 in less than two months.

"People are simply being priced out of food markets," she said.

The WFP has budgeted $2.9 billion this year -- all from donor nations -- to conduct its feeding programs around the world, including large efforts in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and other nations that could not otherwise feed themselves.

Sheeran said soaring prices mean that the WFP needs an additional $755 million to meet its needs. That "food gap" jumped from $500 million just two months ago as prices keep rising, she said.


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