Sunday, March 16, 2008

Rising food prices hurt children, world's poor: UN

Rising food prices hurt children, world's poor: UN

Updated Sun. Mar. 16 2008 12:33 PM ET

The United Nations' largest emergency food program is facing a "perfect storm" of problems in getting help and food to more than 73 million of the world's poorest people.

The increased food costs have left the World Food Program (WFP) with a US$500-million shortfall in its $2.9-billion budget for this year.

UN officials say they're desperately trying to make sure they'll be able to help millions of children and families around the world that depend on the program. They say they urgently need help from Ottawa and ordinary Canadians.

"It's really important that we get the money, so we don't have to do ration cuts or (cuts to) the number of people we have to reach this year," WFP spokesperson Bettina Luescher told in a telephone interview from New York.

"You and I see the price of bread and pasta going up and we may skip one night out, but elsewhere they're regularly skipping meals."

Food prices have skyrocketed in recent years due to a number of factors, including:

  • Rising transportation costs due to fuel price hikes
  • Bad harvests due to droughts
  • Economic boons in developing countries that have led to increased staple demands
  • Agricultural shifts towards biofuel rather than food production

The dropping price of the U.S. dollar is adding to the problem because it's the global currency used for food purchases. The greenback's declining buying power means the WFP is not able to purchase as much food.

"We are also seeing more need," says Luescher. "People are being priced out of the market. They were poor but were able to still buy food. But now, there's food on the shelves in the markets, but people can't afford it any more."

According to the WFP:

  • About 1 billion people still live on less than $1 a day, the threshold for the definition of "absolute poverty"
  • 170 million children are undernourished
  • Crop-yield losses are expected in 40 developing countries in the coming years

In the past, countries like the United States would chip in directly with food donations from excess food grown by farmers. But because demand has grown and prices have shot up, "the era of surplus food is over," says Luescher.

In Afghanistan alone -- where Canadian soldiers are helping to secure the war-torn country -- an additional 2.5 million people will need help because wheat prices have shot up by as much as 67 per cent.

Canada is among the WFP's biggest donors, but Luescher says Canadians need to give even more help now, so that the WFP isn't forced to leave children and families hungry.

Luescher is calling on Canadians to write MPs and the government and ask them to provide more money to help the program this year. She's also hoping that ordinary Canadians and students get involved by holding fundraisers. She says global poverty issues may seem overwhelmingly large, but individuals can make a difference.

"People have this wrong concept that they can't help, but they can. Feeding a child in school for a day costs 25 cents. (A quarter) gives them an education -- they can concentrate, and it's one of the best long term investments for the future," Luescher added.