Nations attending a United Nations-sponsored special session on the world food crisis say failure to address the soaring cost of food threatens to undermine gains on reducing poverty. They warn this could lead to growing instability. The 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council is calling on governments to enact measures to meet the vital food needs of their populations. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The United Nations estimates more than 850 million people worldwide are going hungry, and another two billion are suffering from malnutrition. The World Health Organization says malnutrition in children can cause life-long health problems.

The rights to adequate food and freedom from hunger are enshrined in international law. In calling for this special session, the U.N. Human Rights Council argued that the global food crisis is a massive violation of human rights.

In opening the conference, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, told delegates the high prices and shortages of food were jeopardizing the well-being and rights of countless people.

"In some regions, natural disasters or misguided policies, or both, compound already severe situations and render them catastrophic for the most discriminated and marginalized populations," said Louise Arbour.

Arbour mentioned no country by name. But, her thoughts reflect the recent catastrophic events in Burma where the government has compounded the tragedy arising from Cyclone Nargis by not allowing enough foreign aid to reach the 2.5 million affected people.

Arbour said the current food crisis stems from several factors including distortions in supply and demand and unfair trade policies. She said a failure to respond to the food crisis in a comprehensive way could trigger a domino effect by putting at risk other fundamental rights, including the right to health or to education.

"Very few issues speak as forcefully as this one about individual rights and collective action and about the intolerable inequalities that affect millions through no fault of their own,"she said.

Prices of staple food such as rice, wheat, corn and oils have more than doubled since March. This has set off riots in some 40 of the world's poorer countries, where people spend up to 80 percent of their family incomes on food.

The newly appointed Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter blames much of the food crisis on the cultivation of crops for biofuels instead of for food.

In his speech to the U.N. session, he renewed his call for a freeze on new investment in biofuels and called upon the United States and Europe to rethink policies, which are bad for both the environment and food security.

"The current food crisis vividly illustrates the need for all states to adopt measures which will better shield the most vulnerable segments of the population in the future from such shocks of this magnitude, "said Olivier De Schutter.

Schutter says it is important to support agriculture in developing countries, particularly by small-hold farmers. And, it is particularly urgent to provide farmers with seeds and fertilizers before the close of the planting season in June to prepare the next harvest.

He says rural communities should invest heavily in infrastructure, particularly in irrigation and communications. He also calls for an end to trade-distorting policies, which would allow farmers from poor countries fairer market access.