The head of the United Nations World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, Tuesday said the current food price crisis is the first global hunger emergency. VOA's Barry Wood reports that Sheeran called for cooperative action to alleviate the problem.

Speaking at Washington's Peterson Institute, Sheeran said the increase in food prices is costing the lives of 250,000 people every 10 days. Up to 100 million people are being pushed back into poverty by what has been often a doubling of food prices over the past year. Sheeran, who heads the Rome-based World Food Program, said the world's poorest are the most vulnerable.

"Countries that are most at risk are developing nations that are import dependent and already experiencing an additional shock from conflict, drought, floods or storms," she said. "Think here: Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, Burundi, Mauritania, and others."

Sheeran said that the cyclone that has ravaged Burma may have devastated that Asian nation's principal rice-producing area. Rice prices have gone up 250 percent in the past year while wheat has doubled and corn is up 50 percent. While world grain stocks are at their lowest level in 30 years, Sheeran said much of the price spike is due to panic buying and export bans in several countries.

"A range of major food exporters have put blocks on exports almost overnight; from China, Vietnam, Argentina, to Kazakhstan," she said. "This global rash of "beggar thy neighbor" [protectionist] responses will not provide a solution. In addition, many countries who can afford to are stockpiling, further tightening supply and driving up prices."

Sheeran outlined numerous causes for the sudden rise in prices. These include the rapid increase in oil prices - a major input for fertilizer as well as fuel for tractors and transportation, the proliferation of food for fuel programs, natural disasters, and increasing demand. She is not optimistic that prices will fall significantly over the next three years. Sheeran, who recently visited the Riff Valley of Kenya, is alarmed that farmers there are reducing their plantings.

"Fertilizer has gone from 1,700 shillings there in December to 4,000 shillings just 12 weeks later," said Sheeran. "This, in the bread basket of Kenya, farmers are planting one third of what they planted a year ago."

Sheeran said that supply concerns have resulted in 12,000 tons of food her agency purchased in Kenya for emergency feeding in Somalia being stranded in Kenya. She said immediate action is needed to get food aid to the hungry.