Thursday, 1 May 2008

Food crisis to cause malnutrition: UN

Global food shortages and higher prices are more likely to cause malnutrition than outright famine, at least in the near term, the coordinator of a new United Nations task force said.

John Holmes, who also serves as the UN's top humanitarian aid official, said it was too early to estimate how much extra money will be needed to confront crises stemming from increasingly unaffordable food staples in poor countries.

"People, particularly those on the lowest incomes, will be eating less and less well," he told a news conference in Geneva, where much of the UN's emergency aid operations are managed.

"I don't think that in the very short term we are talking about starvation and famine," Holmes said.

Protests, strikes and riots have erupted in developing countries around the world in the wake of dramatic rises in the prices of wheat, rice, corn, oils and other essential foods that have made it difficult for poor people to make ends meet.

"It is not possible as yet to put a figure on what the immediate humanitarian needs may be for the forthcoming year," Holmes said. "We need to put those funding needs together."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on Tuesday that he was launching a task force to ensure a solid, coordinated international response to the food crisis.

Holmes said that group was likely to include the heads of key agencies.

The task force will work to draft a strategy on both short- and long-term responses to food supply strains, which economists have linked to factors including high fuel and fertiliser costs, the use of crops for biofuels, and commodity market speculation.

Holmes called on donor governments to provide extra money in response to the crisis that has touched countries from Peru to Indonesia, Afghanistan and Senegal, and squeezed the World Food Program's efforts to feed millions of people.

Young children, who can face life-long health problems from malnourishment, as well as pregnant and nursing mothers, are among the most vulnerable groups in developing countries, where food crises also stand to trigger political unrest.

"The challenges here are likely to be of sufficient dimension that we will be asking for additional contributions," Holmes said, noting that the UN's pot of rainy-day cash - known as the Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF - had already disbursed money for various food-related crises.

"CERF is available for precisely these types of situations," he said. "Will CERF be big enough to respond to those needs? That is a question I cannot answer yet."

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