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UN food security summit opens in Rome PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 04 June 2008

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner shakes hands with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-MoonAFP, ROME - Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Tuesday opened a high-profile UN food security summit, after soaring prices sparked riots across the world, and prompted calls for a rethink of agricultural policies.

Earlier UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged "hard decisions" and heavy investment in agriculture.

"For years, falling food prices and rising production lulled the world into complacency," Ban said, adding: "Governments put off hard decisions and overlooked the need to invest in agriculture."

"Today, we are literally paying the price," he said on the eve of the three-day Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) summit.

"If not handled properly, this issue could trigger a cascade of other crises -- affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world," Ban warned.

Aid charity Oxfam appealed to world leaders Tuesday to agree an urgent global action plan in response to the food price crisis.

Oxfam accused the international community of spending a pittance on supporting agriculture in developing countries compared to the huge support given to farmers in wealthy Western countries.

At least 290 million people are threatened by rising food prices, according to the British-based charity.

"Such vast numbers dwarf those affected by even the largest natural disasters, such as the 2004 Asian tsunami," it said in its latest briefing paper.

It estimated that an extra 14.5 billion dollars (9.3 billion euros) was needed to bolster immediate assistance.

"This amount is small when contrasted with the more than one trillion the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank have injected into the financial system in the past six months to try to avert economic crisis," it said.

Similarly annual aid to agriculture, which currently stands at four billion dollars, is a "pittance compared to the 125 billion dollars that rich countries gave their farmers in 2006," it added in a statement.

"World leaders must urgently agree a coordinated global action plan to address the food price crisis," it said.

Oxfam's Britain chief Barbara Stocking said that, in countries where the charity works, it was "seeing the negative impact of higher food prices on poor people, who already spend more than half their income on food.

She also urged "longer-term political changes," stressing the need for an urgent review of compulsory biofuels targets in rich countries.

Recent estimates suggest that increased demand for biofuels accounts for 30 percent of recent food price rises, while mounting scientific evidence shows biofuels are having an overall negative impact on climate change, Oxfam said.

Oxfam staged a "Stop Biofuelling Poverty" protest in Rome on Monday over the rising use of biofuels, with three actors dressed as ears of corn being strangled by a petrol pump hose.

Participants at the High-Level Conference on World Food Security will discuss short-term solutions as well as new strategies to deal with the effects of global warming, growing demand for biofuels and a crumbling agriculture sector in much of the developing world.

The runup to the summit has been clouded by the planned attendance of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, which sparked condemnation notably from Australia and Britain.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called Mugabe's presence in Rome "obscene," saying: "This is the person who has presided over the starvation of his people. This is the person who has used food aid in a politically motivated way."

In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said: "We think it's particularly unfortunate that (Mugabe) has decided to attend this meeting."

The presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also generated controversy.

The Israeli ambassador to Italy, Gideon Meir, said Monday: "It was inopportune to invite him, since it gives him a forum to speak in and to shake hands with other leaders," the ANSA news agency reported.

Ahmadinejad, who was to hold a news conference at the FAO on Tuesday afternoon, repeated his controversial belief that Israel will soon disappear.

"I must announce that the Zionist regime (Israel), with a 60-year record of genocide, plunder, invasion and betrayal is about to die and will soon be erased from the geographical scene," Ahmadinejad said.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in London that Tokyo would use the outcome of the Rome summit to focus debate at a Group of Eight summit it is hosting in July.

"This is a multi-faceted problem that calls for multi-faceted response," Fukuda said. "We would like to build on the outcome of (the Rome) meeting and engage ... at the G8 on the various complex factors behind rising food prices" worldwide.

Estimates vary on the extent to which demand for biofuels has pushed up food prices.

The International Food Policy Research Institute, based in Washington, estimates that it accounts for 30 percent of the increase, the International Monetary Fund puts the figure at 15 percent, while the US Agriculture Department says it is under three percent.

On Sunday, dozens of non-governmental organisations and small farmers' groups opened an alternative forum to coincide with the FAO summit.

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