STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Global leaders are struggling with what may be cast as a moral issue. It's a worldwide increase in the cost of food. The high prices have set off protests from Haiti to Egypt. Poor people are spending even more of their income just to stay fed, if they can afford to pay at all, and there is no sign of a quick solution.
This week, NPR correspondents will tell us how the crisis affects countries they cover. We begin today with a report on how U.S. and international aid officials are trying to cope. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.
MICHELE KELEMEN: The World Food Programme's executive director, Josette Sheeran, has spent much of her first year on the job talking about the perfect storm in the world food market: low food reserves, rising energy prices, and a high demand for biofuels.
Ms. JOSETTE SHEERAN (Executive Director, World Food Programme): I think, in a way, we're the canary in the cave, because very early on we begin to see vulnerability coming that is affecting people that make less than a dollar a day. So, about a year ago, I began to talk about the perfect storm forming for the world's most vulnerable. I thought it would take a couple of years, but I think we're in the eye of the storm now.
KELEMEN: The price of rice is up about 70 percent since last year, and the price of wheat has more than doubled. Sheeran says the world food program just can't buy enough food.
Ms. SHEERAN: So now, our cup in school for kids can be filled 40 percent less than it could just eight, nine, 10 months ago.
KELEMEN: Earlier this year, she appealed for an extra $500 million, but now says she needs 700 million. Sheeran met late Friday with the director of U.S. foreign assistance, Henrietta Fore.
Ms. HENRIETTA FORE (Director, U.S. Foreign Assistance): The United States usually gives between 40 and 50 percent of the world food donations. And we would anticipate that we would be in that range again, but the prices are skyrocketing for all of us.
KELEMEN: Fore sent a $350 million supplemental budget request to Congress before the food prices shot up.
Ms. FORE: We've also asked for local purchase authority, which would allow our United States dollars to stretch further. When we can purchase on local markets, it also encourages local farmers to produce food. It allows the food to get there more quickly.
KELEMEN: Experts believe prices will remain high for several years. Some countries are responding by capping food prices or limiting exports to keep enough food for their own people. Seewa Nsangi(ph) of the International Food Policy Research Institute says he's worried these actions will distort the market. He says it's time for rich and poor nations to have a real discussion about how to fix all this.
Mr. SEEWA NSANGI (International Food Policy Research Institute): That's going to put the burden on policymakers and on the world community, really, to look closely at trade policies, to look closely at technology policies, and put everything on the table.
KELEMEN: Water and population policy should also be on the table, according to Lester Brown, author of the book, "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization."
Mr. LESTER BROWN (Author, "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization"): My principle concern about this is the effect it will have on social unrest and political stability in the low- and middle-income countries in the world that import a substantial share of their grain supply. These countries are in trouble now.
KELEMEN: Unlike previous spikes in food prices caused by crop failures, Brown says we're dealing with systemic changes now - rising demand in Asia, for instance, for more grain-intensive livestock. But he says the straw that broke the camel's back is the demand for biofuel.
Mr. BROWN: The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. And what we're seeing now is the emergence of direct competition between the 860 million people in the world who own automobiles and who want to maintain their mobility while the 2 billion poorest people in the world simply want to survive.
KELEMEN: Brown says he's starting to hear a debate once again about the predictions by 18th century demographer Thomas Malthus that the world's population will outgrow its food supply. But U.S. officials brush off such talk. The World Food Programme's Josette Sheeran also remains optimistic.
Ms. SHEERAN: I have not yet met an expert who doesn't believe the world can produce more food. And so I am a long-term optimist, i.e., over the next five or 10 years, we will figure this out.
KELEMEN: In the meantime, her organization is scrambling to help those hardest hit by the price hikes.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: We're just beginning a week-long look at this problem and tomorrow, we'll hear how demand from countries like China is inflating the cost of food.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.