ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
World leaders gathered in Rome today to talk about the worldwide food crisis. The United Nations secretary general called for lowering trade barriers and removing export bans. He was speaking on the first day of the U.N. summit on food security. Those discussions were somewhat obscured by the presence of two world leaders many consider pariahs - Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization, or FAO, originally called the summit to deal with risks climate change is posing to food security. But soaring food prices and food riots in several countries forced a shift in focus. In his opening remarks, U.N. Secretary General Bang Ki-moon said more than 850 million people in the world are short of food, and that the World Bank estimates that figure could rise by a further 100 million.
SIEGEL: The world needs to produce more food. Food production needs to rise by 50 percent by the year 2030 to meet the rising demand. We have an historic opportunity to revitalize agriculture, especially in countries where productivity gains have been low in recent years.
POGGIOLI: Bang Ki-moon said wealthy nations have been spending billions of dollars on farm subsidies, wasteful and excess consumption of food, and on arms.
SIEGEL: Some countries have taken action by limiting exports or by imposing price controls. They only destroy markets and force prices even higher. I call on nations to reduce such measures and to immediately release exports designated for humanitarian purposes.
POGGIOLI: The summit's two most difficult issues are likely to be the generous farm subsidies paid by wealthy nations to their own farmers and biofuels, often made by converting food stuffs into fuel, which some experts singled out as a major culprit behind the food crisis. But the first day of the summit was dominated by two persona non grata on the international stage. The presence of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe outraged many Western leaders, who blame him for the economic collapse of a country once considered the bread basket of Southern Africa. But Mugabe defended his widely criticized land policies.
POGGIOLI: Thus, over the past decade, Zimbabwe has democratized the land ownership patents in the country with over 300,000 previously landless families, now proud landowners. It has, however, and regrettably so, elicited wrath from our former colonial masters.
POGGIOLI: And he came to blame the West for trying to cripple his country's economy.
POGGIOLI: Funds are being channeled through nongovernmental organizations, law-opposition political parties which are a creation of the West. Further, these western-funded NGOs also use food as a political weapon with which to campaign against government, especially in the rural areas.
POGGIOLI: For Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the summit gave him the opportunity to come to Europe for the first time as his country's president. Besides addressing the plenary session, he also held a long press conference in which he made his latest virulent attack on Israel, which he claims will soon be wiped off the map.
POGGIOLI: This will happen for sure. We have - actually, this will happen whether we are involved in it or not.
POGGIOLI: Both Mugabe and Ahmadinejad are being kept out of the summit's social events. Neither has been invited to tonight's ceremonial dinner.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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