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U.N. agencies weigh response to food crisis

GENEVA (Reuters) - Leading figures from the United Nations met in Switzerland on Monday to chart a solution to dramatic food price increases that have caused hunger, riots and hoarding in poor countries around the world.

Rice is displayed for sale at Ben Thanh market in Vietnam's southern Ho Chi Minh City April 28, 2008. Vietnam moved to quell panic over rice supplies on Monday, banning speculation in the market after a "chaotic" buying binge at the weekend highlighted growing global fears about food security. REUTERS/Kham

Vietnam acted to quell panic over rice supplies on Monday, banning speculation in the market after a “chaotic” buying binge in the Southeast Asian nation highlighted growing global fears about food security.

The move by the world’s second-biggest rice exporter came as protests continued in some states in Africa over soaring costs for food and fuel which aid experts say threaten to push 100 million people worldwide into hunger.

Against this backdrop, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gathered together the heads of 27 international agencies including the World Bank, World Food Programme and World Trade Organisation to coordinate a response.

Officials familiar with the closed-door session said the main priority was to ensure that food aid reached those desperately affected by surging prices of wheat, rice, dairy products and other dietary staples.

Ban, who has described rising food prices as a “global crisis” and urged world leaders to discuss ways to improve food distribution systems and production, will address the press in the Swiss capital Berne on Tuesday.

Experts have linked the problems to factors including drought in Australia, higher fuel costs, the use of crops for biofuels and speculation on global commodity markets.

U.S. President George W. Bush is considering “what other aspects need to be taken care of” to help ease the crisis after announcing a $200 million increase in food aid earlier this month, according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

“He’s really concerned about the humanitarian condition around the world,” she told reporters on Monday.

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Meanwhile world aid groups continue to reel from the jump in food prices. World Vision, one of the globe’s largest humanitarian organizations, said it may have cut 1.5 million people, or 23 percent, from its aid program because of a strained budget.

“Despite our best efforts, more than a million of our beneficiaries are no longer receiving food aid,” said Dean Hirsch, president of World Vision International. “At least a third of these are children who urgently need enough healthy food to thrive.”


Reacting to heavy buying of rice over the weekend, Vietnam’s Communist government asked authorities to regulate local markets and ban non-food traders from trading the grain.

Long lines and empty shelves were still evident on Monday in Vietnam, which like other nations has felt the impact of a nearly threefold rise in rice prices this year.

The rally was triggered by export curbs by top suppliers including Vietnam, which banned exports until the end of June.

The events in Vietnam came as the Philippines said it has asked the World Bank to persuade rice-exporting nations to lift shipment curbs threatening importing countries’ food security.

“I have asked the World Bank if it’s possible to use its moral persuasion, its stature, its influence to talk to the supplier countries,” Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said.

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The global sense of crisis over soaring food costs and supplies has toppled Haiti’s government and caused riots in parts of Africa, where food is already a large part of household budgets.

In West Africa, more than 1,000 people marched through Senegal’s capital Dakar at the weekend to protest against rising food prices.

In war-ravaged Somalia, runaway inflation has made the problem worse. “People will soon start to starve because they have no income,” said Yahye Sheikh Amir, economics dean at Mogadishu University.

But the sharp price increases in Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, looks set to cool, a Thai rice exporter said, thanks to improved supplies.

“The market is likely to correct up to 20 percent even if the bans by India and Vietnam remain,” Korbsook Iamsuri, the secretary general of the Thai Rice Exporters’ Association, told Reuters on Monday.

“Crop arrivals are much better than ... three weeks ago,” she said, as Thai prices remained above the historic $1,000 per metric ton level reached a week ago.

Rice futures in Chicago slid their daily limit on Monday on expectations of improved supplies from Asia.

-- For more on Agflation: The real costs of rising food prices, click on: here

Additional reporting by Grant McCool, Ho Binh Minh and Nguyen Huy Kham in Vietnam, Sambit Mohanty in Singapore, Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Thailand, Carmel Crimmins in Philippines, Russell Blinch in Washington; Editing by Christian Wiessner