Feeding the world

Our view: In tough times, America should take the lead

April 16, 2008

Millions of people around the world are in danger of starving because of a combination of events that experts say will make food much more expensive and scarce for at least the next 10 years. This crisis demands early action by Congress to provide at least $600 million in supplemental food aid to help meet the challenge of a 41 percent increase in global food costs over the last year. Congressional committees are expected to begin weighing the request next week.

For more than 800 million people around the world facing chronic malnutrition, surging commodity and energy prices have made the danger of starvation real. Food shortages have led to riots and civil unrest in Haiti, West Africa and Asia. The United Nations' World Food Program has identified 30 countries bordering on a food crisis.

An array of developments underlies the shortfalls, including rapid growth in China and India, the diversion of American farmland to the production of corn for biofuels, drought and the rising costs of oil-based fertilizers and agricultural fuels. Some countries in Asia have blocked agricultural exports, further disrupting food supplies.

President Bush has ordered the release of $200 million in food aid to begin the purchase of supplies. But officials at Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, which distributes food through its global relief work, say much more will be needed this year and for years to come. (The U.N. predicts world food prices will remain high.)

This global challenge comes as Americans face sharply higher prices for bread, milk and other foods. The rush here to grow corn for a booming government-subsidized biofuels industry is part of the problem. Congress needs to reassess the tangled relationship between food and fuel and recognize that its politically expedient support of biofuels is contributing to hunger and unrest around the world.

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