UN taskforce to tackle global food price crisis

Posted in UN , Other | 30-Apr-08 | Author: Julian Borger| Source: Guardian

A woman manually cleans rice at a wholesale shop in Bangalore, India.

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, yesterday called for world leaders to attend a summit in June to tackle the food price crisis that has triggered global social unrest. In the run up to the summit in Rome, a UN taskforce headed by a British diplomat, Sir John Holmes, will try to develop a coherent international response to the crisis, at a time of sharp international divisions over food exports, genetically modified crops and biofuels.

The plans for a taskforce and summit were announced at a meeting of the UN's chief executive board in Berne, Switzerland, bringing together the UN's humanitarian organisations with the world's principal financial institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"We consider that the recent dramatic escalation in food prices worldwide has evolved into an unprecedented challenge of global proportions that has become a crisis for the world's most vulnerable, including the urban poor," a UN statement issued at the end of the Berne meeting said. It called for donor nations to help the World Food Programme raise an additional $755m (£380m) to meet its existing food aid targets in the face of higher costs, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) called for $1.7bn to pay for seeds and inputs to help farmers in poor countries respond to the high prices by growing more.

The Rome summit, starting on June 3, had initially been planned by the UN's FAO as an experts' meeting on the impact of climate change and biofuel production on global food security. But the dramatic increase in the price of staple foods such as rice, wheat and soya and the consequent food price riots in poor and middle-income countries around the world, has attracted the attention of world leaders.

France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, have confirmed their attendance. Downing Street said last night Gordon Brown had no plans to attend.

In a letter earlier this month to Japan's prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, Brown had called for a coordinated response to the crisis from the G8 group of industrialised nations, due to meet this year in Japan.

Holmes told an audience at the London School of Economics on Monday: "Food insecurity is not like classic famines, such as Ethiopia. It's more insidious. It's been likened to a silent, rolling tsunami."

Sir John will have to navigate some deep divides on how best to respond to the crisis. While Britain and the US argue that it gives added urgency for a new global agreement to liberalise trade, known as the Doha Round, being negotiated by the World Trade Organisation, some countries including India and Thailand have responded to food shortages and riots by curbing exports of staples. In recent days, France's agriculture minister, Michel Barnier, warned EU officials: "We must not leave the vital issue of feeding people to the mercy of market laws and international speculation."

There are also heated debates over whether genetically modified plants are a possible solution to increasing yields, and whether the world should abandon the cultivation of biofuels, which have diverted land and other resources away from food crops.