By Robert Birsel
ISLAMABAD, April 22 (Reuters) - Rising food prices have added $160 million to the cost of the U.N. food agency’s Asia programme but export bans by some countries in response mean supplies can be impossible to get hold of, a U.N. official said on Tuesday.
World prices of food such as wheat and rice have surged in recent months because of flat yields, growing disposable incomes, high fuel prices driving up costs and bad weather, said the U.N. World Food Programme’s Asia director, Tony Banbury.
The result means millions more people across Asia are facing food insecurity, the inability to get sufficient, nutritious food to meet dietary needs, with almost half the population of Pakistan now "food insecure", he said.
But the rising prices have also led to fears about supplies and some big producers, such as wheat producer Pakistan and rice grower Vietnam, have banned exports to soften the impact of higher prices on their people.
"We, as a significant buyer of food commodities in Asia, are experiencing not just higher prices, although that’s had a huge impact on us, $160 million, but real difficult challenges in buying food, in actually getting it," Banbury told a news conference.
"Food exporters are facing this problem and are cutting off their exports and are making it very hard for other countries ... or an organisation like WFP, to buy in the open market."
While some countries have banned exports others have imposed commercial export bans, meaning only the government can export.
Other countries have imposed high trade barriers, such as high tariffs and restrictions on export licenses, so while exports were still technically permitted, it was very hard to get supplies out of the country, he said.
"That’s the case now in China where we’re trying to purchase for the DPRK," he said, referring to North Korea.
"CAN’T GET IT"
Pakistan’s ban on wheat flour exports meant the WFP could not get the food it needed for Afghanistan, he said.
"We simply can’t get it. It’s the same in East Timor right now. They can’t buy the food they need, rice, on the commercial markets," he said.
The Philippines was also having problems importing the rice it needed, he said.
The Asian Development Bank said on Tuesday Asian governments were over-reacting to surging food prices by resorting to export curbs and they should use fiscal measures to help the poor.
The WFP is helping 28 million people in 14 countries in Asia and the cost of that help this year had been estimated at $630 million. But after the price rises that total had risen to $790 million, Banbury said.
The 28 million people the WFP was helping were only a fraction of the total number of people in need.
"That figure does not take into account people who have now become more vulnerable, who can’t afford food anymore, who are not able to redirect income to purchase the same level of food that they were just getting by on," he said.
"There are potentially millions more people who six months ago did not require ... assistance."
There was no easy answer to the problem of surging prices but higher production was key, he said. Helping small farmers with irrigation and better seed was vital as was changing trade policies.
"Whatever may have been the rationale for certain global agricultural trade policies, or national trade policies ... the situation has changed," he said. (Editing by David Fox)