Experts see no early end to world's food crisis

WASHINGTON — The world's deep hunger crisis could go on for years, and in the long run it'll take a new scientific agricultural revolution to help farmers in the poorest countries produce enough food, experts said Wednesday at congressional hearings.

The experts said the world must reverse the decline since the 1980s in international support for agriculture in the developing world. Although it's important to look at short-term fixes, such as more humanitarian aid and a re-examination of trade and biofuels policies, in the long run the world will need scientific advances in agriculture, especially for Africa, they said.

Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the impact of the food crisis is "one of the most pressing global issues of our time."

"Some say there are only seven meals between civilization and potential anarchy. At the seventh meal lost, people are reduced to fending for their survival, and the survival of their children, fraying the very moorings of society," she said.

Some of the causes of the jump in world food prices are expected to continue: the trend in large countries such as China for people to eat more meat and dairy products, which in turn require more feed for livestock; higher oil prices; and more grain used for biofuels.

Asked after a recent talk in Washington if the food crisis could be quickly reversed, Sheeran said, ""We're expecting that we're in for three or four years of challenges."

Global food inflation reached 43 percent in the 12 months ending in March, based on the cost of vegetable oils, grains, meat and other foods that reflect the kind of food eaten in developing countries, said Edward Lazear, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Food inflation in the United States was 4.5 percent. The U.S. level was lower because it was based on the American tendency to eat processed foods and restaurant food, and a large part of the cost of this food is from labor rather than the food itself.

Lazear said that food prices may remain high over the next year, but that rapid jumps in food prices like this year's were unlikely. He said some factors, such as growing demand, would keep prices high, but eventually agricultural markets would respond to higher prices by increasing supply, which could make food prices fall in the next few years.

The United States plans to increase efforts to fight hunger by expanding humanitarian aid, working to increase staple food production around the world and working with other countries to support agricultural trade and to avoid food export restrictions and other policies that create supply problems, said Henrietta Fore, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Fore told the Senate committee that growth in agriculture hasn't been keeping up with demand. In developing countries in the 1960s to 1980s, yields of main cereal crops increased by 3 percent to 6 percent a year, but now growth is 1 percent to 2 percent below the increase in demand, she said.

President Bush has requested that Congress approve $770 million in emergency aid, and some of it would be used to increase U.S. support for agricultural development, Fore said.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the world hasn't seen such a severe food crisis since the 1970s.

"This crisis is unacceptable morally, and it is unsustainable politically and economically," Biden said.

Biden said the United States should support a second Green Revolution, coordinate agriculture and food policy better among various U.S. agencies, re-examine biofuels policy and the way U.S. food aid is delivered, and push for an international agreement to eliminate food tariffs affecting poor countries. The original Green Revolution introduced better seeds and agricultural techniques that increased yields.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the United States should change its aid policies so that countries receiving the help could buy food locally.

Current law requires that the aid should be food purchased in the United States and shipped overseas on U.S. vessels.

Fore said local purchases of food would help farmers earn incomes in the developing world and would stretch the U.S. aid dollar by eliminating transportation costs.

Some of the food crisis has hit U.S. neighbors and allies.

Large numbers of Haitians are going to the Dominican Republic in search of food, and they're returning even after the Dominican Republic sends them home, said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Crime has increased in the capital, Santiago, Menendez said.

And in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed U.S. ally, the World Food Program classifies 21 million of the country's 56 million urban residents as "food insecure," said James Lyons of Oxfam America. Pakistan recently banned flour exports to Afghanistan, deepening food needs there to the point that the World Food Program in January made an appeal for food to help more than 2.5 million people in Afghanistan, Lyons said.

Ultimately, what's needed is to help developing countries feed themselves, market their agricultural products and lift themselves out of poverty, he said.


Some facts about world hunger, from testimony by Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program:

Every 10 days 250,000 people die from hunger, the equivalent of the casualties from the Asian tsunami. The vast majority — 160,000 — are children.

The World Bank estimates that an additional 100 million people will be thrust into deeper poverty and hunger due to soaring food prices.

The world has cut the proportion of people who are hungry in half — from 37 percent in 1969 to 17 percent last year. But with population growth, the number of hungry people has continued to grow, reaching 860 million. Hunger in this case means being unable to meet the basic caloric and nutritional requirements for human health.


Expert testimony on the food crisis, presented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Financial Services Committee in hearings Wednesday.