(Corrects quote in 4th paragraph, and reference in 1st paragraph, to poverty from hunger)
By Stephen Brown
ROME, June 2 Soaring world food prices are threatening 30 million Africans with poverty, World Bank chief Robert Zoellick said on Monday, urging a food crisis summit to act immediately to deliver aid to the countries most at risk.
Zoellick said leaders should send poor farmers seeds and fertilisers and lift the export bans that are helping to drive up prices.
"There are about 800 million people around the world who are suffering malnutrition today and with these food prices going up, you are going to increase those numbers," said Zoellick.
"Our estimate is that higher food prices are pushing 30 million Africans into poverty," he said, citing the case of Liberia where food prices rose 25 percent in January, pushing up the poverty rate to 70 percent from 64 percent.
Zoellick also spoke of seeing people in Haiti trying to stave off hunger pangs by making "mud pies to fill their stomachs -- a little bit of oil, a little bit of salt, and mud."
Haiti became the first country to lose a government to the current food crisis in April after riots broke out over prices of rice, beans, flour and other staples.
"The message I got from the Africans is that they are tired of talk and want to see action," the World Bank president told Reuters in Rome, where emergency talks called by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation begin on Tuesday.
"So, we have got a lot of world leaders here, let's try to focus on what we can do in real time to make a difference," said Zoellick, who last week announced $1.2 billion in loans and grants to help poor countries cope with food and fuel costs.
THREAT TO REFORMS
A spike in commodities prices resulting from a combination of poor harvests, low stock, high fuel prices and rising demand, especially from India and China, threatens to starve millions of people and destabilise governments in the developing world.
Zoellick said development agencies worried that progressive leaders in poor countries who were "building the foundations for growth" would "have a hard time not only maintaining reform programmes but maintaining their governments" in such cases.
The Rome summit should ensure that, by early July, action had been taken to send food to schools, mother-and-child feeding programmes and food-for-work plans in about 20 countries already assessed as being most at risk, Zoellick said.
With the planting season still ahead in some countries, he said, seeds and fertilisers should be sent urgently to boost output. The Rome talks should also seek an urgent end to export bans such as Japan and China's limitations on rice exports.
"They just lead to hoarding and more price hikes and when there has been action to loosen them, you have seen an immediate dampening effect," said Zoellick.
"At a minimum, when the World Food Programme needs to buy food for humanitarian purposes, countries should not tax it and they should not limit the transport," he said.
The FAO summit will also see lively debate on the impact on food prices of diverting crops to biofuel production. Zoellick said corn and oilseed-based biofuels clearly competed with food production and required "safety valves", but Africa could benefit like Brazil from sugar-based biofuel production.
"However it would be unfortunate if that becomes the sole point of debate, because then we would not meet what poor countries tell me they want, which is resources for safety net programmes, seeds and fertilisers, and export bans lifted," said Zoellick. (Editing by Jon Boyle)