The World Food Program warns that rising food prices could turn into a global crisis unless the world acts quickly.  The U.N. food agency has issued an urgent appeal to the international community for immediate aid to help developing countries unable to cope with food shortages and high prices. There also are calls to limit the increasing use of biofuels, which some believe is partly responsible for the developing crisis in food markets. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.

In some countries, families are now spending as much as 80 percent of their total income on food. It is a situation that has led to a rising tide of anger.

In the Middle East, bread is in dangerously short supply. In the Caribbean, food riots recently brought down the government of Haiti. And in parts of Asia, military troops now guard precious rice.

Greg Barrow works for the U.N.'s World Food Program. "There is a perfect storm that has emerged over this issue [due to] a combination of factors - high fuel prices, high food commodity prices driven by the growth of economies in China and India," he says.  "Then this phenomenon of biofuels production, where fields that were once used to produce grain for human consumption are now producing grain for fuel."

Agricultural research experts say reversing the U.S. government's mandate to increase the use of biofuels could help ease the pressure on food prices.

Nicholas Minot at the International Food Policy Research Institute says many other factors are also to blame for the sharply higher food prices, including the weak U.S. dollar.

"In addition, you have some supply shortages," notes Minot. "Drought in Australia has limited the available wheat on the world markets and the number of exporters in response to the higher prices have restricted exports.  Ukraine was restricting wheat exports, and Vietnam and India are restricting rice exports.  So all of these factors are reducing the amount of grains that are available on the world market."

Around the world, that means at least 850 million people could go hungry.  "The world's misery index is rising - a silent tsunami that respects no borders.  Most don't know what hit them," says Sheeran Josette Sheeran, the World Food Program's executive director.

The U.N. food agency has issued an urgent appeal for $755 million in food aid.  It is also calling on world leaders to find ways to help farmers in developing countries grow more crops.

Minot says the outcome could be disastrous if the world does not act quickly.  "Prices could continue to increase, and we could face situations of famine, particularly if food aid budgets are not increased," he adds.

Wheat prices have started to decline, but the price of rice - the staple food for half of the world's population - has more than doubled since last year.  All told, the U.N. says global food prices have increased more than 80 percent in the last three years.