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UN Report:  Bio-Fuels Adding to Food Crisis

The U.N. Special Investigator on the Right To Food says soaring food prices have declined somewhat, but the crisis remains and the problems are exacerbated by the production of bio-fuels. The expert submitted a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council as a follow-up to the Special Session convened on the Global Food Crisis in May. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from the conference in Geneva.

The Special Session in May was called to deal with the negative impact of soaring food prices on the world's poor. U.N. Investigator on the Right To Food, Olivier De Schutter, says the concerns people had then still remain.

He says prices of food commodities in international markets have decreased from their peak levels of last spring. But, he notes they remain much higher than they were before the crisis and predictions indicate they will remain high for several years.

"Before the crisis, it was estimated by the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] that 854 million people were hungry in the world, not receiving sufficient calorie intake per day," he said. "And, two billion were malnourished. As a result of the crisis, it is estimated that at least 50 million more people have grown hungry. And, it is estimated that probably 100 million more people have fallen into extreme poverty."

De Schutter says the poor are hungry and malnourished not because there is no food, but because they cannot afford to buy the food that is available. He says governments must take steps to protect their people from the emerging threats to the right to adequate food.

For example, he says they must protect land users from the risk of eviction, provide their poor with social safety nets and make sure rural women have the same rights as men to access land and other productive resources.

The report notes speculation in the futures market of primary agricultural commodities is behind much of the volatility in food prices. It suggests measures be adopted to decrease the resulting vulnerability, particularly for net food importing developing countries.

The report says the whole issue of agro-fuels has to be rethought. It says there is growing evidence that many agro-fuels consume too much fertile land, use massive amounts of water and energy and, therefore, are not a long-term alternative to fossil fuels.

De Schutter says with the possible exception of sugarcane in countries such as Brazil, the environmental impact of other agro-fuels currently produced from food crops is not particularly positive.

"I am not opposed as a matter of principle to agro-fuels," he said. "Although, I think their environmental benefits in many cases have been widely overestimated. And, I believe particularly bio-fuels produced from maize as is the case in the U.S. is quite detrimental to the environment. But, having said this, I am not excluding in the future that agro-fuels may continue to be produced, but there needs to be some form of international discipline imposed on States."

Otherwise, he warns the pressure on land suitable for the production of crops will continue with dire consequences for the poorest people in the world.

A World Bank Study finds between 15 percent and 43 percent of food price increases on international markets reflect the rush towards agro-fuels by certain countries.