BRUSSELS, Belgium — High prices of food and oil have been swelling the ranks of the hungry since last summer, and the crisis may not end for several years, the head of the world's largest humanitarian agency said last week.
Josette Sheeran, executive director of the Rome-based World Food Program, said a 40 percent rise in the cost of fuel and commodities such as grain since mid 2007 have raised the cost of food and transport, causing a $500-million shortfall in her U.N. agency's 2008 budget.
Sheeran said the budget had been put at $2.9-billion last year, but due to skyrocketing food and fuel costs the agency needs an extra $375-million for food and $125-million to transport it.
After briefing the European Parliament on her agency's financial situation, Sheeran said she saw no quick fix to high fuel and food costs. "The assessment is that we are facing high food prices at least for the next couple of years," she said.
The relief agency feeds almost 89-million people in 78 nations, including 58.8-million children. It buys 90 percent of that food on the open market and only 2 percent from surplus food stocks.
Sheeran blamed her agency's fast rising costs on increases in oil and food commodity prices, the booming economies of China and India, bad harvests and droughts, and a shift to biofuels, which leads to price increases of foodstuffs such as palm oil.
"There are 2.5-million people in Afghanistan who cannot afford the price of wheat," Sheeran said. A recent Afghan government and World Food Program analysis says wheat prices rose more than 60 percent on average in 2007, and as much as 80 percent in some locations.
Sheeran said global food reserves were at their lowest level in 30 years and today cover the need for emergency deliveries of 53 days, down from 169 days in 2007.
She said the issue of rising food costs needs to be addressed by governments as a matter of urgency before it leads to social unrest and malnutrition. She cited recent food riots in Burkino Faso, Cameroon, Senegal and Morocco. However, she did not outline any steps that governments should take to fix the problem in the world's markets.
A significant factor is that corn, soybeans, sugar cane and other crops are seen as sources of clean and cheap biofuels. This means less grain is available for human consumption, driving up prices for basic foodstuffs.
The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 100-million tons of cereals are diverted to the production of biofuels each year.