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DEVELOPMENT: Food Crisis May Get Worse Before it Gets Better

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2008 (IPS) - The spreading food crisis – triggered primarily by rising prices, declining outputs and growing scarcities worldwide – is threatening to impact heavily on the most vulnerable in society: women and children.

The United Nations and international humanitarian organisations fear the crisis may get worse before its gets better.

"Even temporarily depriving children of the nutrients they need to grow and thrive can leave permanent scars in terms of their physical growth and intellectual potential," warns Andrew Thorne-Lyman, a nutritionist at the Rome-based World Food Programme (WFP).

The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) is particularly concerned with the impact of the current crisis on pregnant women and nursing mothers.

"The Fund was involved in providing food to such women in recent crises, including those in Moldova and Niger," says Safiye Cagar, UNFPA&#39s director of information and external relations.

The current food shortages, she said, are bound to make providing this sort of assistance more difficult.

"Our offices are currently working with the U.N. Country Teams in Cote d&#39Ivoire, Guinea, Haiti and Nigeria responding to the consequences of the food crisis there," Cagar told IPS.

Ann Veneman, executive director of the U.N. children&#39s agency UNICEF, warns that rising prices "will most affect the most vulnerable, including people depending on humanitarian assistance, orphans, those affected by HIV/AIDS, refugees and poor urban families."

She said that increase in food prices may not only slow down progress towards achieving health and nutrition-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but can also reverse or negatively impact child-related social indicators.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food prices worldwide have increased about 83 percent over the last three years while the price of rice alone has skyrocketed by about 141 percent since January this year.

The U.S.-based Save the Children, a leading humanitarian organisation, says the present crisis is bound to force more of the world&#39s poor children to go hungry, thereby endangering their current and long-term well-being.

Charles MacCormack, president and chief executive officer of Save the Children, says the increasing pressure on family budgets will have adverse ripple effects on the health, education and safety of children.

"We know from experience that higher food prices most adversely affect impoverished families, especially children," he said, in a statement released Monday.

MacCormack pointed out that the increasingly high cost of food is pushing more families into poverty and forcing them to make difficult decisions on how to spend their money.

"Parents may cut back on the amount and quality of food for their families; pull children from school and send them to work; reduce spending on health care; or sell key productive assets in order to cope with their newly dire economic circumstances," he said.

The survival and well-being of vulnerable children depend on meeting current and impending food shortages and on addressing the root causes of food insecurity, he added.

"This crisis is going to get worse before it improves, and it is critical that families and communities have the food they need now and the tools to prepare for and respond to future food emergencies," he warned.

Thorne-Lyman of WFP says that data from Bangladesh in the 1990s shows that as food prices rose, so did child malnutrition.

He said that families didn&#39t necessarily stop buying rice when the price went up – they just reduced their consumption of the vitamin and mineral-rich foods necessary to help children grow.

UNFPA&#39s Cagar said there were also risks that some poor women may be forced into transactional sex to meet their basic needs, as food prices increase and become less affordable to them and their families.

"This could also lead to an increase in violence, especially against female-headed households and among poor women," she added.

Cagar said UNFPA is also deeply concerned that the food crisis can potentially generate emergencies and disasters, with massive movements of people.

"We respond to such emergencies with support and relief operations to address the urgent reproductive health needs of displaced populations," she added.

Meanwhile, following a meeting with all U.N. agency heads in the Swiss capital of Bern Tuesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the crisis has multiple effects, "with its most serious impact on the most vulnerable in the poorest countries".

"We see mounting hunger and increasing evidence of malnutrition, which has severely strained the capacities of humanitarian agencies to meet humanitarian needs, especially as promised funding has not yet materialised," he added.

The meeting was attended by heads of 26 U.N. agencies, including UNICEF, UNFPA, WFP, FAO, the U.N. Development Programme, the International Labour Organisation, and the U.N.&#39s sister institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Ban said: "I am very pleased today to have with me, as a symbol of the solidarity of the entire United Nations system, some of the leaders of the key institutions in the United Nations on the front line in dealing with food security."

"We have agreed on a series of concrete measures that need to be taken in the short, medium and long terms."

He said the first and immediate priority issue that "we all agreed was that we must feed the hungry".

The joint meeting called upon the international community, and in particular developed countries, to urgently and fully fund the emergency requirement of 755 million dollars for the World Food Programme, and honour outstanding pledges.

"Without full funding of these emergency requirements, we risk again the spectre of widespread hunger, malnutrition, and social unrest on an unprecedented scale. We anticipate that additional funding will be required."

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