UN report demands urgent action on soaring food prices

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The global food crisis became official yesterday when the UN called for urgent intergovernmental action and farming reforms to tackle the soaring prices that are plunging millions of people into potentially deadly poverty.

A UN-sponsored study, compiled over three years by a panel of 400 experts, called for more local food production using sustainable, natural and ecological farming methods, as well as safeguards to protect rapidly dwindling resources.

Publication of the report, for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), follows riots in Haiti, Egypt, the Philippines and West Africa over the costs of rice, wheat and soya – as highlighted by The Independent last week.

Rising food prices - one of the world's fastest-growing crises - are being blamed on China's rapidly increasing consumption, climate change and the increased use of biofuels, all of which heavily increase demand disproportionately against supply.

"The diversion of agricultural crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce our ability to alleviate hunger throughout the world," the report said. Wheat prices have risen by 130 per cent since March 2007 and soy prices by 87 per cent, it added. Last week, the World Bank warned that 100 million more people could be pushed into poverty because food prices had risen by 83 per cent in three years.

"The status quo is no longer an option," said Guilhem Calvo, an Unesco expert, at the report's launch in Paris. "We must develop an agriculture less dependent on fossil fuels, that favours the use of locally available resources."

The Unesco report concludes that agricultural progress has been highly uneven and comes at high environmental and social costs. There is an urgent need for producers to use "natural" processes such as crop rotation and organic fertilisers, it says, adding that swathes of Asia and Africa are running out of water.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, which contributed to the report, said food represented 60 to 80 per cent of consumer spending in developing countries, but just 10 to 20 per cent in industrialised nations. In many countries, price inflation is forcing poor families take children out of schools and go to work to help pay for food.

Professor Robert Watson, the chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said yesterday: "Often, the poorest of the poor have gained little or nothing, and 850 million people are still hungry or malnourished."

Earlier yesterday, the US government pledged $200m to help poor nations combat the global food crisis, while Bangladesh became the latest nation to see protests.