Conference grapples with factors contributing to world hunger

Monday, April 14, 2008 | 10:28 p.m. CDT; updated 4:31 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

KANSAS CITY — Soaring commodity prices. Rising fuel costs. A growing world population. Weather-related disasters. Competition from biofuels. The lowest level of grain stocks in decades.

All of these factors are now coming together to create what those who feed the world’s most impoverished regions are calling a “perfect storm” of circumstances.

That is the backdrop as more than 700 people from 25 countries gathered for the three-day International Food Aid Conference here to grapple with a deepening hunger crisis.

Among them was Michael Usnick, director of the World Food Programme, who told conference attendees Monday that there are still more than 850 million people in the world who are food insecure — about one in every seven people on earth. Each day 25,000 people die of hunger and its related causes, he said.

“This perfect storm has hit with a speed and intensity that very few predicted — a crisis that escalated dramatically over the past year,” Usnick said, noting the agency’s cost of purchasing and transporting food has risen 55 percent since June.

Rising oil prices have had an impact on everything, including fertilizers, harvest, storage and transportation, he said. An economic boom that has created a middle class in other countries also has increased demand for meat and cereal products.

Also pushing up commodity prices are low levels of grain stocks. U.S. wheat stocks are at their lowest levels since the 1947-48 harvest, and ending wheat stocks worldwide are at their lowest level since 1981-82 season, said Jay Sjerven, president of the United Nations Association, Kansas City Chapter.

But 26 years ago, the world had 2.1 billion fewer mouths to feed, Sjerven said.

While in the United States people typically spend just 15 percent of their income on food, in many developing countries food costs account for 75 percent or more of their income, Usnick said.

Food riots have erupted in places like Haiti, Egypt and Pakistan, among others.

An additional 30 countries could face more unrest, Usnick said.

“Rising prices may also lead to political instability,” said Jeffrey Borns, director of Food for Peace.

Some countries have banned exports of foodstuffs amid concerns for their own food supplies, said Frank Orzechowski, an adviser with Catholic Relief Services. India, for example, has banned exports of edible oils and wheat.

“What we are seeing this year is a real urgency. ... The political stability of much of the world is at risk,” he said.

Rebecca Bratter, director of trade policy for U.S. Wheat Associates, said that while the market will eventually correct itself, commodity prices may never fall back to the low levels of the past because of pressures from population growth, biofuels and a growing middle class around the world.

“You have heard about a perfect storm; I like to call it a new paradigm,” she said. “The commodity prices we are seeing today, they may never return to what they used to be.”

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