24 April 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ON FOOD PRICE CRISIS


Warning that the “silent tsunami” of global food-price inflation could push another 100 million people worldwide more deeply into poverty, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), Josette Sheeran, today called on Governments to scale up money to help it buy food for the growing number of hungry people, particularly in very poor countries.


Soaring food prices -- up 55 per cent from June 2007 to February 2008, including an 87 per cent hike for rice in March -– and dwindling global food stocks due to more world food consumption than production were seriously threatening WFP’s ability to keep millions from starvation, Ms. Sheeran told correspondents at Headquarters during avideo conference from Rome.  The agency’s 2008 core budget of $3.1 billion covered the cost of just 60 per cent of the amount of food it could buy last year with the same contribution.  And so far it had received just 63 per cent of the $755 million appealed for in February to close that gap.


“We are in a situation of making some heartbreaking choices where we’re really going through our programme and looking at where the greatest vulnerability is and which programmes we can keep whole until we can raise that full amount,” Ms. Sheridan said.  In the coming weeks, core programmes -– which included food aid for Darfur, northern Uganda, Afghanistan and other places -- would begin to be cut if funding was insufficient.


“We’re now moving with the Secretary-General and others to look at solutions and what the world and Governments can offer at this time,” she said.  At present, the agency’s most critical priority was to ensure food for people living on less than 50 cents a day, including internally displaced persons and refugees, particularly infants under age two.


In what she called the “new face of hunger”, many millions of people had become urgently in need of food in the past six months and many who had been vulnerable -– especially young children and pregnant women -- were now at risk of becoming permanently malnourished.  “We’re also concerned because this is not only an issue of hunger, but one of peace and stability as we’ve seen with more than 34 countries having protests and food riots in recent months,” she said.


People in industrialized countries spent about 15 per cent to 18 per cent of their household income on food, making them better equipped to cope with disasters and food price hikes than households in developing countries, which on average spent 70 per of their income on food.  People most at risk -- rural landless peasants, small-scale farmers, the urban poor, children and mothers -- were eating less nutritious and fewer meals, as little as two or three per week in places like Burundi, and foregoing basic necessities such as health care and schooling.


WFP fed 80 million to 90 million people annually when wars and natural disasters destroyed essential food stocks.  But the current crisis -– which was spreading rapidly across the globe -- could not be blamed on particular events.  


A correspondent asked if market speculation was in part causing the food price hike.  Ms. Sheeran said several factors had driven prices up so quickly, taxing the resiliency of vulnerable populations.  They included the growth of protein-rich diets in developing countries, higher oil prices, harvests harmed by increasingly severe weather, biofuel production and increased market speculation.


As to whether Governments were working together and increasing their response to the global food crisis, she said the world had a “robust toolbox” to meet the challenge of hunger.  Many Governments had done the right thing, creating productive safety nets, with the help of WFP and other agencies, to feed people during times of drought and flood.  And many -– including Ghana, Brazil, Chile and El Salvador –- were on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme hunger by 2015.  “If we scale up our global response, we can avoid a lot of human suffering and try to stay on top of this challenge,” she said.


Concerning the goals of the High-Level Conference on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy to be held in June in Rome, she said Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), had shown excellent leadership in raising awareness about the challenges to feed the hungry and help struggling farmers cope with natural disasters and higher prices for fertilizers and fuel.  WFP, FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), all headquartered in Rome, had set as a priority conference theme the need to address immediate challenges due to soaring food prices, and they would encourage participating countries to hash out strategies.  The United Nations Secretary-General had asked the three agencies to present their strategies at next week’s meeting in Switzerland of theirexecutive boards.


As to WFP’s efforts to coordinate solutions with G-7 Finance Ministers to hedge against out-of-control oil prices, she said the food and fuel markets were linked as never before and that malnutrition could affect more than 10 per cent of a nation’s gross domestic product.  The millennium target concerning hunger should be addressed by Finance Ministers worldwide, she said, noting that she had recently discussed such concerns with Finance Ministers in Africa.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record