Page last updated at 22:06 GMT, Tuesday, 22 April 2008 23:06 UK

Assessing the global food crisis

By Emily Buchanan
BBC News

Afghan men line up to receive World Food Programme donations, 3 April 2008
The WFP helps feed 70 million people

"A silent tsunami which knows no borders sweeping the world".

That is how the head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) summed up the global food shortages.

It is certainly a storm that has hit with little warning and has plunged an extra 100 million people into poverty.

The crisis has triggered riots in Haiti, Cameroon, Indonesia and Egypt and is deemed a dangerous threat to stability.

It is not so much famine that is the worry, it is widespread misery and malnutrition.

The WFP's biggest concern is for the people living on 50 cents a day who have nothing to fall back on.

Budget shortfall

Amongst these are the 70 million people the organisation helps with food aid.

The costs of that aid have risen so sharply the WFP is now facing a $750m (377m) shortfall in its budget.

It means some of their programmes may have to be cut and rations reduced.

So why have food prices soared?

The rises are due to a lethal combination of high fuel costs, bad weather in key food producing countries, the increase in land allocated to bio-fuels, and a surge in demand - much of it from the rising middle classes of China and India.

Agriculture stopped being sexy, it was all about unglamorous logistics

Amy Barry

The problem is that once the price of rice or wheat has risen, other factors kick in which make things worse.

There is panic and people start hoarding, speculators buy up supply, and food producing countries impose export controls to try and preserve food for their own people.

This then means less is available to be exported to countries which rely on food imports.

What can be done to solve the crisis?

On an optimistic note, WFP head Josette Sheeran said she was confident the world could produce the food it needed, it was just a question of riding this difficult period and getting enough resources to invest.

Planting less

But it is not going to be a quick fix.

She used the example of Kenya's Rift Valley where farmers even now are planting a third less of the land than last year.

This is because fertiliser has more than doubled in price.

"Soaring food prices should be a wake-up call for the world to make long term investment in the food supply chain," she said.

Small farmers are unable to deliver more food without that investment.

A soldier stands guard over subsidised government rice sold in Manila, the Philippines, 16 April 2008
Rising food prices have caused turmoil in many countries

It is their plight, struggling with poor land, inadequate tools and lack of transport, that has made it so difficult for them to come out of poverty.

Amy Barry from Oxfam feels agriculture has been badly neglected.

"Agriculture stopped being sexy, it was all about unglamorous logistics," she said.

"The focus was more on delivering health and education services. That has to change."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has long put a high priority on helping the poor in developing countries.

In London on Tuesday he convened a meeting of food experts to try to come up with solutions.

He has called for a global review of bio-fuels policy and offered $900 million in extra aid.

Mr Brown said rising food prices posed as great a threat to world prosperity as the global credit crisis and warned that they threatened to reverse progress made to alleviate poverty.

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