At UN food summit, Ban Ki-moon warns of rise in child hunger deaths

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned at UN food summit in Rome that 6 million children die of hunger a year, but critics say new money to tackle the problem is unlikely.

Filippo Monteforte/AP
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivers his speech at the start of the inaugural ceremony of a World Summit on Food Security in Rome on Monday.

At the start of a global food security summit in Rome on Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged donors to help the 1 billion people on the planet who do not have enough to eat. He particularly underscored the plight of children, saying that more than 17,000 children die of starvation every day.

"One every five seconds. Six million children a year," he said in his opening remarks to the conference. "This is no longer acceptable. We must act."

Some aid groups dismissed the three-day gathering of international leaders as a failure before it had begun, arguing that it won't generate more money to tackle hunger and malnutrition.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is organizing the summit, had hoped wealthy countries would promise to increase their annual food aid from $7.9 billion to $44 billion, but a draft declaration leaked before the summit began was short on specifics.

It makes no mention of a proposal to eliminate hunger by 2025 and leaders are expected to simply reaffirm their commitment to the UN's Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015.

"The declaration is just a rehash of old platitudes," said Francisco Sarmento, food rights coordinator for ActionAid.

The head of the FAO, Jacques Diouf of Senegal, said the world's richest nations must make good on promises they made at a Group of Eight (G-8) meeting in July to massively increase food aid.

"The pledges are an encouraging sign, but the $20 billion earmarked funds still have to materialize," he said.

Pope Benedict XVI, who made the short journey from the Vatican to address the first day of the summit, warned against resignation or indifference toward the problem of hunger.

Benedict said there was a "tendency to view hunger as structural, an integral part of the sociopolitical situation of the weakest countries, a matter of resigned regret, if not downright indifference. It is not so, and it must never be so."

Only Berlusconi

Campaigners condemned the fact that the summit is being attended by only one G-8 leader – Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who is hosting the gathering.

The United States, the world's biggest food aid donor, is sending the acting head of the US Agency for International Development, while Britain is represented by two junior ministers.

More than 60 world leaders, many of them from Africa and Latin America, will take part in the summit, including Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

"It's a tragedy that the world leaders are not going to attend the summit," said Daniel Berman of Medecins sans Frontieres.

Global surplus of food

Aid groups said it was outrageous that malnutrition still exists on such a vast scale when the world produces a surplus of food. Cereal crops this year are expected to be the second-largest ever, after a record harvest in 2008.

According to FAO, the number of hungry people rose this year to 1.02 billion people, as a result of the global economic crisis, high food and fuel prices, drought, and conflict.

The Catholic Church in Italy is also warning the summit is unlikely to lead to much improvement. Avvenire, the newspaper owned by the powerful Italian Bishops' Conference, said the meeting would be a "flop" because the draft of the final declaration to be signed by world leaders contained no new aid commitments.

Economic crisis compounds food shortages

Mr. Ban said climate change and population increases are exacerbating an already acute global food crisis.

"By 2050, our planet may be home to 9.1 billion people, over 2 billion more than now. We will need to grow 70 percent more food. Yet, the weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable. This week's food security summit [and] next month's climate change meeting [in Copenhagen], must craft a single global vision."

The summit marked the third time in a decade that leaders had met to discuss food security, yet there are more hungry people today than in 2002 when the first gathering was held, said the London-based think tank International Policy Network.

"Instead of making bland commitments, it is time for governments to take action to reduce the barriers to trade that currently inhibit investments in new agricultural technologies and economic diversification. Only then will they end hunger," said executive director Julian Morris.

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