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Groups Begin to Tackle Hunger Crisis

Alison Raphael

WASHINGTON - Far away and close to home the growing world food crisis is taking a toll. While Americans are increasingly shocked at their rising grocery bills, hunger threatens lives and stability in several developing countries.0429 08

In response, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international agencies called last week for a sharp and immediate increase in giving for food, along with longer-term policy changes aimed at alleviating poverty, boosting agricultural production, and improving the way aid is given.

Oxfam America is urging Congress to release $200 million in emergency aid to developing nations. "Congress should act now to make our food aid more efficient by allowing food to be purchased closer to where it is needed, reaching many more people," said Oxfam America president Raymond Offenheiser.

At present, U.S. food aid is limited to U.S.-made products shipped on U.S.-owned vessels, causing lengthy delays. "On the verge of a massive worldwide crisis it is unconscionable to allow special interests and bureaucracy to deprive poor and vulnerable people food," Offenheiser charged.

Mercy Corps and other U.S.-based NGOs are seeking individual donations to fight hunger in countries where families are now reduced to eating just one meal a day.

A Washington, DC-based think tank, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), offered an analysis of the factors fueling the crisis and three long-term policy prescriptions. IFPRI asserts that food prices are at their highest since the mid-1970s, mainly due to high energy prices and increased demand for biofuels.


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"With oil prices at an all-time high...and the U.S. government subsidizing farmers to grow crops for energy, U.S. farmers have massively shifted their cultivation toward biofuel feedstocks, especially maize, often at the expense of soybean and wheat cultivation. About 30 percent of U.S. maize production will go into ethanol in 2008 rather than into world food and feed markets," according to IFPRI director general Joachim von Braun.

In addition, the gradual rise in buying power of global consumers -- who now want more milk, meat, and wheat-based products -- has placed new pressures on existing food stocks. The coincidence of this trend with the reduction in cultivation of agricultural products has worsened the situation, as has quirky weather conditions, such as the severe, ongoing drought in Australia that is demolishing the country's wheat production.

Climate issues are also a key factor in East and West Africa, where lack of rainfall this year threatens 18 million people with another year of poor crops and resultant humanitarian crisis, according to CARE and Oxfam. The groups advocate the urgent creation of social protection mechanisms to help the poorest families cope with rising food bills and avoid starvation.

IFPRI agrees with the need for such mechanisms and recommends, in the longer-term, more investment in agriculture and research on market access to help boost supply, along with trade policy reform, particularly changes in wealthy-country subsidies for biofuels and agricultural products.

According to Mercy Corps, spiraling food costs are producing near-famine conditions in Niger, Syria, Tajikstan, and Kazakhstan as the price of bread, powdered milk, corn, and wheat flour spike ever-upward. Food riots have already taken place in at least eight countries, including Mexico, Egypt, Morocco, and Haiti, where the prime minister was unseated earlier this month as a result of the protests.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization will host a high-level conference on World Food Security in Rome in early June.

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