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World Leaders' Presence Missed At Rome Food Summit

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said today's food crisis was "a wake-up call for tomorrow."
(RFE/RL) -- World leaders are meeting in Rome for a food summit aimed at bringing help to the estimated 1 billion people in the world who are suffering from hunger.

But with most wealthy countries absent, there's been criticism that the summit is a missed opportunity.

The three-day gathering comes with memories still fresh of last year's spike in the prices of food staples like rice.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, opening the summit, said the human cost of the food crisis had been "enormous," pushing millions of families into poverty and hunger.

Ban said prompt assistance had averted much potential damage. But he said the underlying problems were still there, meaning fresh crises were inevitable "unless we act now."

Calling the food crisis "a wake-up call for tomorrow," Ban noted that even as the world's population is set to grow by over 2 billion in the next 40 years, the climate is changing as well.

"By 2050 we know we will need to grow 70 percent more food. Yet weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable," Ban said. "In many parts of the world, water supplies are declining, agricultural land is drying out."

Off The Agenda

Food shortages and hunger burst onto the international agenda with last year's crisis.

Food riots threatened stability in dozens of countries in Asia and Africa; governments across the world moved to safeguard food supplies for their people; and there was a rush by rich countries to buy farmland abroad.

In July, Group of Eight (G8) leaders meeting in Italy pledged $20 billion over three years in a new effort to fight hunger, one that focuses less on emergency aid and more on helping poor countries produce more food by themselves.

But the only G8 leader expected to attend this week's food summit is Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister of the host country, Italy. Instead, it's being attended mostly by African and Latin American leaders, including Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Jacques Diouf, head of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), said that was indicative of how far food security had slipped down the world's agenda.

"Unfortunately, such interest seems to be waning as other issues are coming to the forefront of the international agenda, although all the heavy clouds which led to the previous crisis are again accumulating in the skies," Diouf said.

"The absence of key heads of state today is a clear indication of what I just said."

But for some, particularly humanitarian groups, the summit itself only adds to the sense of disappointment.

The FAO says some $44 billion is needed each year in agricultural aid, but the summit's declaration contains no specific money commitments, saying only that countries will "substantially increase" aid to agriculture in developing countries.

And instead of a promise to end malnutrition by 2025 -- as the UN wants -- the declaration has world leaders pledging only to eradicate "hunger at the earliest possible date."

So the sense of skepticism is palpable. The International Policy Network, a London-based think tank, said despite pledges made at previous UN food summits, "there are more hungry people now than in 2002 when they held their first summit."

with agency reports