Wednesday, April 23, 2008

UN cuts school children's meals

UN cuts school children's meals

Jeremy Lovell

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A "SILENT tsunami" unleashed by costlier food is threatening 100million people, the United Nations has warned, revealing that its World Food Program has begun cutting the provision of school meals to some of the world's poorest children as the global food-price crisis worsens.

Aid bodies said there was enough food to go round but the key was to help the poor afford it, and urged producing nations not to curb exports to stockpile food at home.

In London, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said Britain would seek changes to EU biofuels targets if it was shown that planting crops for fuel was driving up food prices - a day after the bloc stood by its plans to boost biofuel use.

Britain has also pledged $US900million ($947 million) to help the UN World Food Program alleviate its immediate problems and address longer-term solutions to "help put food on the table for nearly a billion people going hungry across the world".

In a meeting of experts which Mr Brown called on Tuesday to discuss the crisis, the head of the World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, said a "silent tsunami" threatened to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger.

"This is the new face of hunger; the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are," she said.

Riots in poor Asian and African countries have followed steep rises in food prices caused by many factors: rising demand from consumers in developing countries such as China and India, the effect of climate change on food production, dearer fuel and the conversion of land to grow crops for biofuel.

Rice from Thailand has more than doubled in price this year.

Ms Sheeran said artificially created shortages, such as those caused by countries that have slowed or stopped exports, were worsening the problem.

The major food exporters Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Egypt and Cambodia have closed their stocks to safeguard supplies.

"The world has been consuming more than it has been producing for the past three years, so stocks have been drawn down," Ms Sheeran said.

"The world knows how to produce food and will do so. But we will have a couple of challenging years."

Rising prices meant the UN food program was running short of money to buy food.

A program providing meals for 450,000 Cambodian children has been suspended and Ms Sheeran said a similar program in Kenya, serving 1.2 million children, was facing cuts of nearly 50per cent.

She said the cutbacks reflected "heartbreaking decisions" and were the biggest challenges of the program in 45 years.

"The era of cheap food is over," said Rajat Nag, managing director general of the Asian Development Bank.

He urged Asian governments not to distort markets with export curbs but use fiscal measures to help the poor.

"We want to temper what we think is a bit of an over-reaction. There is still enough supply," he said.

Mr Brown raised further doubts about the wisdom of using crops to help produce fuel, an idea whose recent popularity in the United States and Europe has been dented by fears that it harms the environment and makes food dearer.

"We need to look closely at the impact on food prices and the environment of different production methods and to ensure we are more selective in our support [for biofuels]," Mr Brown said.

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