ROME The world's leading crusaders against hunger voiced frustration on World Food Day on Thursday that the global financial crisis had overshadowed a food crisis tipping millions toward starvation.
The World Bank predicts that high food and fuel prices will increase the number of malnourished people in the world by 44 million this year to reach a total of 967 million.
Economists have also warned that the world's poor would be the most vulnerable to a global economic downturn.
"The media have highlighted the financial crisis at the expense of the food crisis," said Jacques Diouf, head of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. The World Food Program's Executive Director Josette Sheeran acknowledged that even citizens of wealthy countries had been affected by high food prices and the financial crisis.
"But for those who live on less than a dollar a day, it's a matter of life and death," Sheeran said.
Proponents of more urgent measures questioned why the world's richest nations could not show the same urgency to save people from starvation as they did when rushing to rescue banks.
"My position is that the financial crisis is a serious one, and deserves urgent attention and focus, but so is the question of hunger, and millions (are) likely to die. Is that any less urgent?," asked former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Pope Benedict said the blame for hunger could be directed at "boundless speculation" in markets, partly blamed for high food and fuel prices. But he also pointed to "selfishness" by the world's rich and a poor distribution of resources.
A Senegal-based NGO said the fading attention to the food crisis showed a "problem of justice, of equity and solidarity."
"If they are able to raise funds for the banking system, they can also find ways to reduce poverty in the world," Vore Gana Seck, President of Dakar-based CONGAD (Council of NGOs Supporting Development) told Reuters in the Senegalese capital.
"I think it's a problem of priority."
Prices of wheat, rice, maize and other staples in the developing world have all risen dramatically this year, although they have fallen from their peaks in recent months.
In Somalia, wheat prices have risen by 300 percent in the 15 months to April. Maize prices in southern Africa have risen by anywhere between 40 and 65 percent, crippling the ability of the poor to feed themselves, said aid group Oxfam.
"It is shocking that the international community has failed to organize itself to respond adequately" to the food and energy crisis, said Barbara Stocking, the head of Oxfam.
"We need to see one coordinated international response, led by the United Nations, which channels funds urgently to those in need, and leads on implementation of the longer-term reforms."
Diouf said the world has the know-how to end hunger, even if the population climbs to a forecast 9 billion people by 2050.
But he complained that his U.N. agency lacked resources and said that it only received 10 percent of the $22 billion pledged in June, following food riots in some of the affected countries.
"We have a serious shortfall in the financial resources needed to fulfill the expectations," Diouf said.
"In spite of the passionate speeches and financial commitments made by many countries, only a tiny proportion of what was promised in June has been delivered."
Development economist Jeffrey Sachs told reporters he was pessimistic about the future, given the lack of progress even when the food crisis had made headlines earlier this year.
"There are reasons to believe that on the current business-as-usual trajectory things will get worse.. because of rises in population, more climate shocks, more environmental degradation, and lack of ability of the very poor places to respond adequately," he said.
(Additional reporting by Megan Rowling and Jonathan Saul in Dublin, Pascal Fletcher in Dakar, Luke Baker in London; Editing by Angus MacSwan)