Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Monday, 28 April 2008 10:18 UK

UN meeting to address food crisis

People queuing for rice in Bangladesh
Rising food prices are worrying governments across the world

Key United Nations development agencies are meeting in Switzerland to try to develop solutions to ease the escalating global food crisis.

Led by secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, officials want to mitigate the impact of the steep rise in staple food prices and prevent food shortages worsening.

The World Food Programme (WFP) says an extra 100 million people cannot afford enough food because of higher prices.

Food has become increasingly expensive, triggering unrest in several countries.

Challenges

The Haitian Prime Minister was forced from office earlier this month after the soaring cost of rice and beans triggered violent disturbances in the capital Port-au-Prince.

A host of countries across Asia have suspended rice exports amid fears that insufficient domestic supplies could lead to acute instability.

The UN's two-day meeting in Berne will be attended by the heads of 20 agencies as well as World Bank president Robert Zoellick and World Trade Organization boss Pascal Lamy.

Man carries sack of rice in Manila
Rice prices have risen by more than 90% in the past year

Mr Ban has called for emergency measures to ensure that the most needy people across the world have access to basic foods in the coming months.

Unless this happens, he has warned, the crisis will escalate and pose real threats to "economic growth, social progress, and even political security".

But the BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva said it was less clear how more deep-seated problems could be addressed.

These include the current impasse in global trade talks, general economic weakness and profound differences over the use of agricultural land for biofuels.

The WFP has launched a massive fund-raising appeal, saying it needs an extra $755m to purchase the necessary food to meet its obligations.

Speculators

Countries across Asia are taking renewed action to curb the rising cost of rice and make supplies available to the poorest in society.

The Philippine government is to issue "rice cards" enabling families on subsistence incomes to buy rice at half the current market value.

Malaysia said on Monday that it would subsidise domestic producers to ensure that the staple remained "affordable" to low-income groups.

Malaysia, which has refrained from direct subsidies in the past, produces about 70% of the rice it consumes, importing the remainder from Thailand.

The authorities in Vietnam, meanwhile, have warned that market speculators forcing up the price of rice would face "severe punishment".

Speculators including food suppliers, commodity trading houses and other investors have started to buy rice, before selling it on for considerable profits or holding back supplies, thereby distorting the market further.

"The unnecessary tensions in the domestic rice markets in recent days stemmed from many factors such as rumours, groundless information and particularly the hoarding and holding back of rice to wait for the prices to go even higher," said Nguyen Thi Nguyet, secretary general of Vietnam's Food Association.

Vietnam has insisted it has adequate supplies to meet its population's needs.



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