GENEVA, Switzerland - The United States and the European Union have taken a "criminal path" by contributing to an explosive rise in global food prices through using food crops to produce biofuels, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food said today.At a press conference in Geneva, Jean Ziegler of Switzerland said that fuel policies pursued by the U.S. and the EU were one of the main causes of the current worldwide food crisis.
Ziegler was speaking before a meeting in Bern, Switzerland between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the heads of key United Nations agencies.
Ziegler said that last year the United States used a third of its corn crop to create biofuels, while the European Union is planning to have 10 percent of its petrol supplied by biofuels.
The Special Rapporteur has called for a five-year moratorium on the production of biofuels.
Ziegler also said that speculation on international markets is behind 30 percent of the increase in food prices.
He said that companies such as Cargill, which controls a quarter of all cereal production, have enormous power over the market. He added that hedge funds are also making huge profits from raw materials markets, and called for new financial regulations to prevent such speculation.
The Special Rapporteur warned of worsening food riots and a "horrifying" increase in deaths by starvation before reforms could take effect.
Meanwhile, speaking in Rome today, a nutritionist with the UN World Food Programme said that "global price rises mean that food is literally being taken out of the mouths of hungry children whose parents can no longer afford to feed them."
Andrew Thorne-Lyman said that even temporarily depriving children of the nutrients they need to grow and thrive can leave permanent scars in terms of stunting their physical growth and intellectual potential.
He said that families in the developing world are "finding their buying power has been slashed by food price rises, meaning that they can buy less food or food which isn't as nutritious."
But not everyone agrees. Toni Nuernberg, executive director of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council based in Omaha, Nebraska, says, "I can unequivocally state that ethanol does not take food from the mouths of starving people."
"Ethanol production uses field corn - most of which is fed to livestock with only a small percentage going into cereals and snacks. In fact, only the starch portion of the corn kernel is used to produce ethanol. The vitamins, minerals, proteins and fiber are converted to other products including sweeteners, corn oil and high-value livestock feed - feed which helps livestock producers add to the overall food supply," said Nuernberg on Tuesday.
Nuernberg relates rising energy costs to food bills, as growers fuel tractors and machinery and truckers transport foodstuffs to market.
"The United States spends roughly one billion dollars a day on imported oil. A fraction of these funds would more than make up for the shortfall in the World Food Program," Nuernberg said. "Ethanol is just one element in our drive to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It should not be a convenient scapegoat for global issues beyond our control."
A World Bank report issued April 9 agrees with the UN officials. According to "Rising Food Prices: Policy Options and World Bank Response," increases in global wheat prices reached 181 percent over the 36 months leading up to February 2008, and overall global food prices increased by 83 percent.
Increased bio-fuel production has contributed to the rise in food prices, according to this report. Concerns over oil prices, energy security and climate change have prompted governments to increase bio-fuel production and use leading to greater demand for raw materials including: wheat, soy, maize and palm oil.
Food price hikes are also linked to higher energy and fertilizer prices, a weak dollar and export bans.
The Group of Eight, G8, will take up this matter at its annual meeting in July. The meeting will be attended by the leaders of the eight countries - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States - the same countries said by Ziegler to be on a "criminal path."
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Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, as chair of the G8, expressed his intention to raise the matter at the G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit in letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Robert Zoellick on April 18.
Rapid increases in the large-scale production of liquid biofuels in developing countries could increase the marginalization of women in rural areas, threatening their livelihoods, according to a new study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO.
"Unless policies are adopted in developing countries to strengthen the participation of small farmers, especially women in biofuel production by increasing their access to land, capital and technology - gender inequalities are likely to become more marked and women's vulnerability to hunger and poverty further exacerbated," said Yianna Lambrou, co-author of the paper, "Gender and Equity Issues in Liquid Biofuels Production - Minimizing the Risks to Maximize the Opportunities."
"Biofuel production certainly offers opportunities for farmers - but they will only trickle down to the farm level, especially to women, if pro-poor policies are put in place that also empower women," said Lambrou.
Analysis being carried out by the world's largest international food aid organization supports World Bank estimates that about 100 million people have been pushed deeper into poverty by the high food prices.
The UN World Food Programme, WFP, aims to feed 73 million people globally this year, but the agency now estimates it needs at least US$500 million more than anticipated last year to meet its 2008 operational budget of US$3.4 billion.
The half-billion dollar increase is solely due to the sharp hike in food and transport costs over the last few months.
WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran of the United States says that high food prices are creating the biggest challenge that WFP has faced in its 45 year history, a "silent tsunami" of hunger.
Sheeran said that WFP could only fill a cup with half the food that it could last year because of rising food prices.
"The response calls for large-scale, high-level action by the global community, focused on emergency and longer-term solutions," she said.
WFP is urging a comprehensive approach where all parties, from governments to UN agencies to nongovernmental organizations, all work together.
Alongside other partners, WFP will follow a three-track response. In the short term, WFP will seek full funding for targeted food safety nets and mother-child health programs in extreme situations. School feeding programs will be scaled up and used as a platform for urgent, nutritional interventions.
In the medium term, WFP will offer its huge logistics capacity to support life-saving distribution networks. Every hour of the day, WFP has 30 ships on the high seas, 5,000 trucks on the ground and 70 aircraft in the sky, delivering food to the hungry. Cash and voucher programs will be supported and so will local purchases from small farmers, helping them to afford inputs and sustain livelihoods;
In the longer term, WFP will support policy reform and provide advice and technical support to governments engaging in agricultural development programs.
Many governments are already taking action. Some are expanding targeted safety nets, such as cash transfer programs to vulnerable groups, food-for-work programs, or emergency food aid distribution. Several countries have lowered tariffs and other taxes on key staples, in order to provide some relief to consumers.
Other countries have put in place export bans, which are detrimental to food importers and reduce incentives for production.
Food crop prices are expected to remain high in 2008 and 2009 and then begin to decline, but they are likely to remain well above the 2004 levels through 2015 for most food crops.
© Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008