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As Food Prices Soar, U.N. Calls for International Help

The head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization urged help Wednesday for countries affected by a global food crisis caused by sharp increases in the prices of rice and wheat. Experts discuss the causes and consequences of high food prices.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Around the world, the cost of food is going up, 83 percent in the last three years, and the rise in prices is threatening to plunge more than 100 million people deeper into poverty and hunger.

    The U.N.'s World Food Programme says the problem is getting worse. Josette Sheeran heads the agency.

  • JOSETTE SHEERAN, Executive Director, U.N. World Food Programme:

    It's what I call a silent tsunami. It's not one storm hitting in one place. This is something that knows no borders and that is rolling through the world and really increasing the misery index of the world's most vulnerable.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The cost of staples last year rose significantly. Rice was up 16 percent; wheat rose by 77 percent.

    This year, the spike is even more dramatic. Since January, rice prices have soared 141 percent; one variety of wheat went up 25 percent in a single day.

    World Bank President Robert Zoellick.

  • ROBERT ZOELLICK, President, World Bank:

    It's getting more and more difficult every day. In many developing countries, the poor spend up to 75 percent of their income on food. When prices of basic foods rise, it hits hard.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Zoellick also warned that 33 nations are at risk of social unrest because of the rising cost of food.

    Food riots have already occurred in several nations this month. At least seven people have died in violence in Haiti, where more than half the population lives on a dollar a day or less. The price of rice there has doubled since December.

    Protesters also gathered outside a food market in the Ivory Coast.

  • PROTESTOR (through translator):

    Even what we are producing our self has become expensive. We cannot buy in the market. Everything becomes expensive. We don't eat. We don't eat.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In Egypt, rioters burned a market and neighboring school. In Thailand, a country that exports 90 percent of the world's rice, farmers now carry guns to protect their crop.

  • JOSETTE SHEERAN:

    There is a new face of hunger with people who were not in the urgent category just a few months ago joining the ranks of desperation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Among the numerous factors contributing to the problem are record oil prices that have driven up the cost of transporting food and increased demand and changing diets in emerging nations like China.

  • JOSETTE SHEERAN:

    China has almost doubled its consumption of meat, fish and dairy products since 1990. This takes a lot of grain off global markets since, for example, it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.

    This increased demand in China reached a tipping point over the past few years, with China disappearing as one of the largest grain exporters in the world into an importer of grain virtually overnight.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Another factor, particularly in the U.S. and the European Union, is the diversion of crops such as corn to produce ethanol and other biofuels.

    In the meantime, the high prices also make it harder on aid agencies to help out.

  • NANCY ROMAN, U.N. World Food Programme:

    Food prices are going through the roof right now, which means that every day that passes we can buy less food than the day before.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The U.N.'s World Food Programme was forced to tack an additional $755 million to this year's budget of $2.9 billion to account for rising prices.

    Food prices in this country are also on the rise, though the impact has been less dramatic. Today, there was news the top two warehouse stores, Sam's Club and Costco, have begun limiting sales of certain types of rice.