Food riots in developing countries will spread unless world leaders take major steps to reduce prices for the poor, the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said yesterday.
Despite a forecast 2.6 per cent rise in global cereal output this year, record prices are unlikely to fall, forcing poorer countries' food import bills up 56 per cent and hungry people on to the streets, FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said.
"The reality is that people are dying already in the riots," Diouf told a news conference.
"They are dying because of their reaction to the situation and if we don't take the necessary action there is certainly the possibility that they might die of starvation.
"Naturally, people won't be sitting dying of starvation, they will react."
The FAO said food riots had broken out in several African countries, Indonesia, the Philippines and Haiti. Thirty-seven countries face food crises, it said in its latest World Food Situation report.
Some of the worst tensions have been in Haiti, where protests at the high cost of living descended into riots last week and four people were killed in clashes with security forces.
There is concern about rising prices in the Philippines, but it was not clear what incidents the FAO was referring to. "I am surprised that I have not been summoned to the UN Security Council, as many of the problems being discussed there would not have the same consequences on peace, security and human rights [without the food crisis]," Diouf said.
Increased food demand from rapidly developing countries such as China and India, the use of crops for biofuels, global stocks at 25-year lows and market speculation are all blamed for pushing prices of staples such as wheat, maize and rice to record highs.
While people in richer countries have noticed higher supermarket prices, the effect is far more pronounced in developing countries, where 50 to 60 per cent of income goes to food compared with just 10 to 20 per cent in the developed world.
Diouf called on heads of state and government to attend a food crisis summit at FAO headquarters in Rome on June 3-5.
He said the priority was a "massive seed transfer", to ensure farmers in poor countries could buy seeds, fertiliser and feed at prices they could afford.
Other measures include creating financial mechanisms to ensure poorer food-importing countries could continue to buy the food they need and give a larger proportion of aid budgets to agriculture, Diouf said.
The comments echoed those of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who called this week for a co-ordinated response to the food crisis which would include reaching a deal on the Doha trade talks and the possible use of market-based, risk-management instruments to avert food price volatility.
Diouf said it was normal to expect developing countries to put controls on food exports, even if that exacerbated global food prices. The price of rice jumped 40 per cent in three days recently when India and Vietnam banned exports, an FAO official said.
"Export bans are a normal reaction for any Government that has a prime responsibility to its people," he said.
Expanded crop plantings this year should mean a 2.6 per cent increase in cereal output, with wheat up 6.8 per cent on last year, the FAO has forecast.
But with only a small proportion of that reaching the open market, the effect on prices will be negligible as other price pressures remain, it said.