RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West with Steve Inskeep in Karachi, Pakistan.
We go to Rome now. World leaders are meeting there today to tackle the problem that's pushing an estimated 100 million people into hunger - soaring food prices. The U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization - or FAO - is sponsoring this food summit. More than 40 world leaders are there, including two of the most controversial: Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Some of the causes of soaring food prices are clear - high oil prices, changing diets, urbanization, growing populations, and extreme weather. Others are more debatable - flawed trade policies, increased biofuel production, and commodities speculation. According to the U.N., over 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and many millions more are at risk.
The price of rice has doubled since January, while the cost of dairy products, soya beans, wheat and sugar has also surged in recent months. FAO Assistant Director General Alexander Muller says this is a completely new situation.
General ALEXANDER MULLER (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization): We have new vulnerabilities. Poor people in the city who are not able to buy enough food, they are protesting. We have riots in the streets. We have social problems in several countries. So this is an urgent need to really invest more in agriculture.
POGGIOLI: The three-day summit is expected to call for the establishment of a global food fund and seek pledges of food aid from wealthy countries to poor nations to ward off food shortages.
In a key policy document prepared for the summit, the FAO says the international community should take urgent and concrete actions to address the issues of hunger and malnutrition caused by rising food prices. The FAO forecasts that cereal prices may not stabilize anytime soon. Prices might come down, the FAO says, but they're not likely to reach their previous low levels for several years to come.
The participants are also to discuss the increased production of biofuels. The FAO's Muller says agriculture can produce energy and at the same time it depends on energy input.
General MULLER: So bioenergy could be part of the solution if we do it in the right way. This means we have to produce bioenergy in a sustainable way and in a way which does not affect negatively food security. This will be a very difficult task, but we are making progress in the preparation of this conference.
POGGIOLI: On the eve of the conference, the FAO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development - the OECD - issued a joint report that warned that the urban poor in food importing countries will require increased humanitarian aid to stave off hunger and undernourishment that can also lead to civil strife. The two international bodies also urged governments to rethink trade restricting policies, such as protecting domestic producers through high price supports, export taxes and trade embargos.
This summit risks being overshadowed by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mugabe's presence in Rome has caused international outrage at a time when millions in his country face hunger due to food shortages caused by his policies. And Ahmadinejad added fuel to his virulent anti-Israel stance, saying Monday that Israel will soon disappear off the map and that the satanic power of the United States faces destruction.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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