Food price ‘catastrophe’ feared on eve of summit

A rice vendor eats meal while waiting for customers at a public market in Manila, Philippines. Poverty campaign group ActionAid comments that "the current food crisis could amount to a gross violation of human rights." (AFP)

Soaring food prices could trigger a global catastrophe, with the world's poor unable to feed their families, human rights activists said on Monday.

The warning came as world leaders arrived in Rome for a UN summit to tackle the food crisis which is pushing 100 million people into hunger, provoking food protests and could aggravate violence in war zones.

"The current food crisis amounts to a gross violation of human rights and could fuel a global catastrophe, as many of the world's poorest countries, particularly those forced into import dependency, struggle to feed their people," said Johannesburg-based poverty campaign group ActionAid.

"It is an outrage that poor people are paying for decades of policy mistakes such as the lack of investment in agriculture and the dismantling of support for smallholder farmers," said ActionAid analyst Magdalena Kropiwnicka.

Forty-four world leaders are expected at the three-day meeting, which kicks off a round of diplomatic talks on poverty, hunger and development in the coming months, including a G8 Summit, a UN General Assembly and potentially conclusive talks on new world trade rules.

"This is a multi-faceted issue that calls for a multi-faceted response and considerations," said Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, adding he hoped the summit would issue a "forceful message on medium- to long-term measures such as increasing food production and agriculture productivity".

The hunger discussions however risk being overshadowed by the presence of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who both have strained relations with the West. The European Union has imposed a travel ban on Mugabe, but that does not apply to UN meetings.

The summit was called last year by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to talk about climate change and biofuels, but the food price crisis will now take centre stage.

Protests and violence

Poor harvests, low stocks and rising demand, especially from India and China, caused huge food price spikes over the last two years, stoking protests, strikes and violence in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that increased hunger caused by the price spikes will exacerbate conflict in war zones.

With food prices expected to remain high over the next decade even if they fall back from current records, the summit will address long-term policies, such as support for small farmers and trade reforms, as well as immediate food aid.

One of the first leaders to arrive, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said he would defend biofuels – foodstuffs converted into energy – from attacks from hunger campaigners.

"It's up to Brazil, a centre of excellence in ethanol production, to prove that it's fully possible to make ethanol output compatible with the production of food."

Brazil is the world's largest ethanol exporter and a pioneer in sugar-cane based biofuels. The United States is massively increasing the production of ethanol from maize and the European Union aims to produce 10 per cent of automobile fuels from bio-energy by 2020.

But opponents of biofuel say it has caused 30 per cent of the global food price hikes by diverting food from people's mouths into fuel tanks and competing for arable land.

"To continue the pursuit of biofuels in the face of the credible, impartial and growing opinion that this is exacerbating the food crisis is morally outrageous and utterly indefensible," said Rob Bailey, of hunger campaigners Oxfam International.

ActionAid said it wanted the summit to stop arable land being switched to biofuel production.