BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Record high food prices and resulting inflation are set to continue until at least 2010, fuelling a “new hunger” across the globe and anarchy on the streets of poorer nations, a top U.N. official said.
Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, said the world’s economy “has now entered a perfect storm for the world’s hungry” caused by high oil and food prices and low food stocks.
“Our assessment is that the current level will continue for the next few years ... in fact rise in 2008, 2009 and probably at least until 2010,” she said on a visit to Brussels on Thursday where she met European Union officials.
Her visit came on a day that oil, gold and copper surged to record highs as investors fleeing a weak dollar piled into commodities.
Sheeran said food prices were rising due to a combination of soaring oil and energy prices, the effects of climate change, growing demand from countries such as India and China and use of crops to produce biofuels.
“This is leading to a new face of hunger in the world, what we call the newly hungry. These are people who have money, but have been priced out of being able to buy food,” she said.
“Higher food prices will increase social unrest in a number of countries which are sensitive to inflationary pressures and are import-dependent. We will see a repeat of the riots we have already reported on the streets such as we have seen in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Senegal.”
Over 25,000 people die from hunger or a related illness every day across the world, with one child dying every five seconds.
The U.N. aid official was in Brussels seeking help in bridging a $500 million dollar “food gap” created by soaring commodity costs which have increased by around 40 percent since 2007.
The WFP is currently drawing up a list of 30 countries which they believe are “most vulnerable” to the current food inflation crises such as Afghanistan where $77 million is needed to feed an additional 2.5 million people.
“Our budget shortfall for 2008 means that at the moment we have to decide do we provide 40 percent less food or do we reach out to 40 percent less people. This is unacceptable,” Sheeran said.
Along with extra funding, she said one solution would be to increase food production by using more land for agriculture and reducing the amount of land set aside for biofuels.
The EU last year set itself a target for biofuels to account for 10 percent of fuel used by transport in the bloc by 2020.
But critics have recently questioned whether the plan needs to be reviewed in the light of concerns about the impact of biofuels on food supplies and whether they really contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Governments need to look more carefully at the link between the acceleration in biofuels and food supply and give more thought to it (biofuels policy),” Sheeran said.
“We are not seeing any benefits to small farmers, particularly in the less-developed world. This land could be better used.”
Speculative investment in commodities markets in products such as grains and cereals, which has helped fuel the price surge, is not a short-term phenomenon, she said.
“This is not a short-term bubble and will definitely continue,” Sheeran said.
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