Page last updated at 18:21 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 19:21 UK

Task force faces major challenge

By David Loyn
BBC international development correspondent

Grocer in Pakistan
The high price of rice means this Pakistani grocer has few customers

The sheer scale of the food price crisis was revealed by the figures talked about at the end of a two-day summit meeting of the heads of UN agencies in Bern.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the world would need to find $1.7b (860m) to help farmers in the poorest countries buy the seeds and fertilizers they needed.

That is almost twice the present annual budget of the UN agency involved - the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The head of the FAO, Jacques Diouf, said that a failure to act earlier on warnings meant that already "people have died, a government has been toppled, there is a risk of more people dying".

A former British diplomat, Sir John Holmes, currently head of the UN's Humanitarian Affairs programme, will set up a "task force" to co-ordinate policy across more than 20 UN agencies.

[Unmet] pledges do not feed hungry mouths
Robert Zoellick
Head of World Bank

The solutions are complex, including assessing the effect of climate change, population growth, higher demand from richer Asian countries, biofuels competing for land use and the steep rise in the oil price.

Productive capacity

The task force will try to help farmers who cannot afford to plant crops this season.

The costs of production, in particularly the cost of fertilizer, has led to less planting, at just the time that the world needs to see more food.

The priority is to improve the productive capacity of farmers worldwide, and particularly in Africa, where there is talk of the need for a new "green revolution", matching the increase in production in Asia in the 1970s.

The head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, said that it was important to see this as more than just an improvement in the agricultural technology used.

"It really has to focus all the way along the value chain - property rights, seeds, fertilizers, markets, and roads, so that people can get their produce to market."

Women getting rice handouts in Pakistan
These women in Pakistan rely on free rice handouts from a local shrine

There is some sign of wheat prices stabilising, helped by a decision by Ukraine to ease export restrictions, but few expect the era of cheap food to return.

The head of the FAO in Asia, He Changchui, said that although current high prices were "unreasonable", the market was not likely to return to the levels seen before the price spiral.

Some developing countries want to increase subsidies to their farmers, and this will be one of the most contentious issues to resolve, as it runs against modern economic orthodoxy that insists that subsidies should be cut.

Farm subsidies

Talks to introduce new trading rules that will insist on cutting subsidies, the Doha round, are now into their seventh year.

The head of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy, said that the developed world had offered to cut trade-distorting farm subsidies, which he admitted had "damaged food production in developing countries".

He said that the aim was to gather the "necessary political energy in order to help developing countries to increase their food production capacity".

Complex work is now being done to avert what the UN secretary general called "the risk of social unrest on an unprecedented scale", and a routine meeting of the FAO in Rome in June has been upgraded into a major world event.

And there have been renewed calls from developed countries to fund food aid.

The World Food Programme has appealed for $755m (380m) to cope with the current crisis, but so far have only $18m in hand despite many pledges of support.

Mr Zoellick said the next few weeks were crucial, pointing out that "pledges do not feed hungry mouths".

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