04/29/2008, 00.00
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UN’s emergency plan against world food crisis

A two-day meeting ends today in Berne. It was convened to decide short-term interventions and long-term planning to tackle current food crisis. Participants split between those who want production for food only and those who do not want to give up biofuels. First problems develop in Viet Nam and Thailand as the crisis gets worse in the Philippines.

Manila (AsiaNews/Agencies) – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began talks yesterday in Berne (Switzerland) with key development agencies on how to tackle the crisis provoked by soaring food and fuel prices and put an estimated 100 million of the world's poorest people on the brink of starvation.

The prices of staple foods like rice, grain, oil and sugar are all at least 50 per cent higher than they were this time last year.

The UN's two-day meeting in Berne is being attended by the heads of 20 agencies like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Short term emergency measures as well as long term plans are expected.

Speaking to the press in Geneva, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, has called for a suspension of biofuel production, and has criticised the International Monetary Fund which he claims has “imposed on the poorest countries” the cultivation of non-food products, thereby further cutting down on food production.

Conversely, Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, said biofuels are needed as a low cost alternative source of energy, blaming the recent hike in prices on speculation.

Whatever the cause the food crisis is already evident in many regions of Africa and Central America. It has had a limited impact on Asia though where more than 80 per cent of the world's rice is consumed. Countries like China, India and Japan are in fact self-sufficient.

Viet Nam, which is also self-sufficient in rice, has banned export till June. However, yesterday rice supplies in stores were running low after a bout of panic-buying by consumers. In the capital Hanoi rice supplies have already run out, whilst in the southern city of Ho Chi Minh City supermarket chain Saigon Co-op Mart said it was selling only 10kg of rice per purchase.

The Vietnamese government blamed hoarding and speculation for the weekend buying spree and reacted by ordering local authorities to regulate markets and ban non-food traders from trading rice.

In the Philippines, the world’s largest rice importer, things are tough, forcing the Filipino government to call on the World Bank to persuade rice-exporting nations to lift shipment curbs that threatened the food security of importing countries. The authorities also began implementing a relief programme that should benefit some 300,000 families. It includes giving out ‘rice passes’ to the poorest families and cash subsidies of about 1,400 pesos (US$ 33)—500 pesos a month, plus a 300 pesos monthly support per child for a maximum of three children. In addition a kilogram of the government-subsidized rice costs 18.25 pesos (US$ 4.40), or roughly half the price of rice being sold in grocery stores.

Eyes are also on Thailand, the world’s top rice exporter. However, the recent frantic pace of price increases looks set to cool in the weeks ahead.

In Singapore, the second richest country in Asia, inflation rate has rocketed to 6.7 per cent (a 26-year high) and the government has began advertising food stalls that offer meals for 2 Singapore dollars, or about US$ 1.50, setting up a website that lists food stalls where the public "can find cheap, tasty food”. (PB)

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