Brussels Boosts Emergency Food Aid

As the announcement was made in parliament, the Greens called for a moratorium on biofuels, which many feel have helped drive up food prices

As the wave of strikes, protests and riots by millions of the world's poorest citizens in reaction to soaring food prices spreads around the globe, the European Commission is to offer a further €117.25 million in emergency food aid in response to the impact of the increase in food prices on the world's most vulnerable people.

Making the announcement in the European Parliament, the commission's development chief, Louis Michel, said: "The rise in basic food prices is a worldwide humanitarian disaster in the making. Ongoing humanitarian food programmes are under enormous pressure with less food available for people already on the brink of starvation."

"Millions more, who were just about coping before, now risk going hungry," he added. "Addressing food price issue is a global challenge requiring long-term solutions but the emergency is now. We have an obligation to act—and act quickly."

"All analysts say that the era of cheap food is over. We won't see food prices going back down to former levels," he said, pointing out that the aid package was only a partial solution, but not enough to deal with what he called a "structural problem."

He called for a global mobilisation, warning that the crisis threatened "destabilisation in many countries around the world."

What has precipitated the crisis remains unclear, although a number of analysts have described the situation as "a perfect storm" combining a wide range of factors.

The Greens in the parliament used the occasion to call for a moratorium on biofuels, which have in the last year gone from a welcome solution in the fight against climate change to one of the villains behind the food crisis, along with export restrictions, poor harvests, speculation in commodity markets and rising oil prices.

Meanwhile, development NGOs argue that the cracking open of third world agricultural markets is partly to blame, but Western trade officials argue that markets have not opened enough.

Graham Watson, the leader of the Liberals in the parliament, pulled back from his group's previous robust support for European biofuels policy, while endorsing the view that the situation is complex.

"While it is true that bio-fuels increase demand for crops and displace food production the reasons for the recent food price rises are many and varied and so must be the international community's response," he said.

The free market came in for a beating from many MEPs, with repeated calls for increased regulation of speculators.

Leader of the Socialists, German MEP Martin Schultz blamed capitalism itself: "It is shocking that people are now speculating on increases in food prices. Banks are telling their clients to bet on soaring prices. The result is that there is now an incentive for speculators to create food shortages.

"Casino capitalism has taken a seat at the table of the poor. This is immorality carried to the extreme. This is why we need international controls on financial markets."

Commissioner Michel responded: "I'm not in love with capitalism. It's not the object of my affections, but a means to an end."

The latest humanitarian funding consists of €57.25 million taken from the existing food aid budget run by the commission's humanitarian aid department, and a requested €60 million in new money.

The commission has responded on a rolling basis as this crisis has developed. In the face of increasing needs, it committed €160 million—more than 70 percent of the available food aid funds—in a decision adopted in February. It has also fast-tracked the deployment of the rest of the budget with €6 million included in a special package for Bangladesh announced on 10 April.

'Silent tsunami'

Tuesday's announcement, which raises the EU's total food aid budget so far in 2008 to €283.25 million, comes as the head of the UN warned that the food crisis threatened global security.

Speaking to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) conference in Accra, Ghana, on the same day, UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon said: "If not handled properly, this crisis could result in a cascade of others…and become a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world."

At the same time as the UNCTAD conference, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was hosting his own emergency meeting of experts in London to discuss the problem, with representatives from the World Food Programme, the African Development Bank, the head of supermarket chain Sainsbury's, development NGO Oxfam, agrochemicals firm Syngenta, Cargill Grain Traders and the UK's agricultural trade association, the National Farmers' Union.

Mr Brown called for a boost in research into new crop varieties and reiterated that a key solution was the signing of a global trade agreement that would open up markets in the West to agricultural exports from the developing world.

Following the meeting, WFP chief Josette Sheeran said that the crisis was the greatest challenge her organisation had faced in its 45-year history.

She called food price rises: "a silent tsunami threatening to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger."'

"This is the new face of hunger—the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are," she said in a statement.

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