U.N. Warns Of "Silent Tsunami" Of Hunger

A homeless girl gets a little help from her elder relative as she eats her lunch next to a wall covered with graffiti anti-war messages and a peace sign on a street in Manila's Quezon City on Friday April 18, 2008, in the Philipines. The world marks Earth Day on Tuesday April 22, 2008, but this year's theme of water protection is likely to be overshadowed by the looming food and rice crisis. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)[Click image for details ]
AP Photo/Bullit Marquez
Ration cards. Genetically modified crops. The end of pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap supermarkets.

These possible solutions to the first global food crisis since World War II - which the World Food Program says already threatens 20 million of the poorest children - are complex and controversial. And they may not even solve the problem as demand continues to soar.

A "silent tsunami" of hunger is sweeping the world's most desperate nations, said Josette Sheeran, the WFP's executive director, speaking Tuesday at a London summit on the crisis.

The skyrocketing cost of food staples, stoked by rising fuel prices, unpredictable weather and demand from India and China, has already sparked sometimes violent protests across the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.

The price of rice has more than doubled in the last five weeks, she said. The World Bank estimates food prices have risen by 83 percent in three years.

"What we are seeing now is affecting more people on every continent," Sheeran told a news conference.

Hosting talks with Sheeran, lawmakers and experts, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the spiraling prices threaten to plunge millions back into poverty and reverse progress on alleviating misery in the developing world.

"Tackling hunger is a moral challenge to each of us and it is also a threat to the political and economic stability of nations," Brown said.

Malaysia's embattled prime minister is already under pressure over the price increases and has launched a major rice-growing project. Indonesia's government needed to revise its annual budget to respond.

Unrest over the food crisis has led to deaths in Cameroon and Haiti, cost Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis his job, and caused hungry textile workers to clash with police in Bangladesh.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said more protests in other developing nations appear likely. "We are going through a very serious crisis and we are going to see lots of food strikes and demonstrations," Annan told reporters in Geneva.

At streetside restaurants in Lome, Togo, even the traditional balls of corn meal or corn dough served with vegetable soup are shrinking. Once as big as a boxer's fist, the dumplings are now the size of a tennis ball - but cost twice as much.

In Yaounde, Cameroon, civil servant Samuel Ebwelle, 51, said he fears food prices will rise further.

"We are getting to the worst period of our life," he said. "We've had to reduce the number of meals we take a day from three to two. Breakfast no longer exists on our menu."

Even if her call for $500 million in emergency funding is met, food aid programs - including work to feed 20 million poor children - will be hit this year, Sheeran said.

President Bush has released $200 million in urgent aid. Britain pledged an immediate $59.7 million on Tuesday.

Even so, school feeding projects in Kenya and Cambodia have been scaled back and food aid has been cut in half in Tajikistan, Sheeran said.

Yet while angry street protesters call for immediate action, long term solutions are likely to be slow, costly and complicated, experts warn.

And evolving diets among burgeoning middle classes in India and China will help double the demand for food - particularly grain-intensive meat and dairy products - by 2030, the World Bank says.

Robert Zoellick, the bank's head, claims as many as 100 million people could be forced deeper into poverty. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said rising food costs threaten to cancel strides made toward the goal of cutting world poverty in half by 2015.

"Now is not too soon to be thinking about the longer-term solutions," said Alex Evans, a former adviser to Britain's Environment Secretary Hilary Benn.

He said world leaders must help increase food production, rethink their push on biofuels - which many blame for pushing up food prices - and consider anew the once-taboo topic of growing genetically modified crops.