PARIS — Major agricultural countries must urgently change their policies to avoid a social explosion from rising food prices, a panel of U.N. experts warned Tuesday, adding their voices to concerns about the proper balance between saving the environment and feeding the poor.
"Modern agriculture will have to change radically if the international community wants to cope with growing populations and climate change, while avoiding social fragmentation and irreversible deterioration of the environment," said Salvatore Arico, a biodiversity specialist with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, summarizing the report by about 400 experts.
The report tries to provide a comprehensive view on how to produce food that is less dependent on fossil fuels; favors locally available resources, natural fertilizers and traditional seeds; and tries to preserve the soil and water supply.
The prices of basic foods have been rising sharply, setting off violent protests in countries including Haiti, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Italy. The unrest has resulted in dozens of deaths and led to the dismissal on Saturday of Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis. The rising cost of subsidizing bread prices is a major worry for important U.S. allies like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Wheat prices have risen by 130 percent since March 2007 and soy prices 87 percent, the United Nations said, with food now representing 60 to 80 percent of consumer spending in developing countries. In general, the World Bank has said food prices have climbed about 83 percent worldwide over the past three years.
The United States has been criticized for pressing for the use of biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, as a way to reduce oil consumption and to keep corn prices high for farmers. But the prices that please farmers are causing shortages in basic grains used for food in the developing world.