The UN summit on World Food Security and Climate Change opens Tuesday in Rome. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates 850 million people suffer from hunger, with the vast majority in developing countries. The summit is being held as food prices soar around the world.

Monday, on the eve of the summit, the development agency ActionAid warns that rising food prices could create a global catastrophe. It calls the crisis a gross violation of human rights.

Magdalena Kropiwnicka is a food policy analyst with ActionAid. From Rome, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporters Joe De Capua about the effects of high food prices.

?Specifically, for those countries which are reliant on importing food and oil, the impact can be quite devastating. FAO predicts that the food import bill for developing countries is expected to rise by 40 percent (this year), and in some cases, such as Haiti or Eritrea and Burundi, the impact could be quite catastrophic. For example, Haiti is relying 100 percent on petroleum imports and 72 percent on gain imports. And (it) already has a percentage of under-nourished people standing at almost 50 percent,? she says.

She adds, ?Many families in those countries are already spending well over three-quarters of their income on food. So, obviously what is happening is that we are seeing children being withdrawn from school, HIV-positive people going without essential medical care and women limiting themselves to near starvation rations.?

She says the causes include biofuels production and regulatory loopholes in commodity futures speculation. ?We are blaming this?(on) decades of policy mistakes, such as the lack of investment in agriculture and the dismantling of supports for smallholder farmers. Over the past years, agriculture investment has diminished to its lowest level and farmers have been left in developing countries without any impute subsidies, such as diminished access to credit or subsidies to fertilizers.?

Asked why there hasn?t been greater investment if populations are on the rise, she says, ?We were dealing with promotion of policies of financial and trade liberalization. So, investment in agriculture had just not been seen as a priority by most of the governments. In addition, the rise in population in China and India is not to be blamed for the current food price crisis. This?crisis is mostly due to the increase of financial speculation (in) future commodity markets.?

Kropiwnicka says there?s no shortage of food. ?Actually over the past two years, FAO is continuing to say and predict that cereal production is at the highest level ever. This is mostly an issue of utilization of food and of securing access to food.?

What can be done? ?First and foremost, we welcome new funds being pledged by donors and multi-lateral agencies to help developing countries cope with the food crisis. However, we state that these funds must come without harmful policy conditionalties, which are to be blamed for leading to the current crisis and must be additional to existing aid commitments,? she says.

Short-term action would include guaranteeing people?s right to food should be guaranteed through an urgent scale-up of donor financing for such programs as cash transfers, food vouches and subsidies, free school meals, public work employment schemes. And since women play such a major role in agriculture, ensuring they have enough support to prepare for the next planting season.