GENEVA (Reuters) – Global food shortages and higher prices are more likely to cause malnutrition than outright famine, at least in the near term, the coordinator of a new United Nations task force said on Wednesday.

John Holmes, who also serves as the U.N.’s top humanitarian aid official, said it was too early to estimate how much extra money will be needed to confront crises stemming from increasingly unaffordable food staples in poor countries.

“People, particularly those on the lowest incomes, will be eating less and less well,” he told a news conference in Geneva, where much of the U.N.’s emergency aid operations are managed.

“I don’t think that in the very short term we are talking about starvation and famine,” Holmes said.

Protests, strikes and riots have erupted in developing countries around the world in the wake of dramatic rises in the prices of wheat, rice, corn, oils and other essential foods that have made it difficult for poor people to make ends meet.

“It is not possible as yet to put a figure on what the immediate humanitarian needs may be for the forthcoming year,” Holmes said. “We need to put those funding needs together.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on Tuesday that he was launching a task force to ensure a solid, coordinated international response to the food crisis.

Holmes said that group was likely to include the heads of key agencies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Food Program, Food and Agriculture Organization, World Trade Organization, World Health Organization and International Fund for Agricultural Development.


The task force will work to draft a strategy on both short- and long-term responses to food supply strains, which economists have linked to factors including high fuel and fertilizer costs, the use of crops for biofuels, and commodity market speculation.

Holmes called on donor governments to provide extra money in response to the crisis that has touched countries from Peru to Indonesia, Afghanistan and Senegal, and squeezed the World Food Program’s efforts to feed millions of people.

Young children, who can face life-long health problems from malnourishment, as well as pregnant and nursing mothers, are among the most vulnerable groups in developing countries, where food crises also stand to trigger political unrest.

“The challenges here are likely to be of sufficient dimension that we will be asking for additional contributions,” Holmes said, noting that the U.N.’s pot of rainy-day cash — known as the Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF — had already disbursed money for various food-related crises.

“CERF is available for precisely these types of situations,” he said. “Will CERF be big enough to respond to those needs? That is a question I cannot answer yet.”

Ban has made climate change and food security two of his top priorities as U.N. chief, a post he has held since January 2006.

The South Korean national chastised countries on Tuesday for not taking more seriously warnings from the Food and Agriculture Organization and others about the likely pinch of food prices.

“We predicted even two to three years ago that this crisis would come. I am sorry that the international community had not listened more attentively,” he told a public lecture in Geneva.

His predecessor, Kofi Annan, said that food riots in Egypt, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Madagascar and elsewhere were a major concern for Africa, where poor countries’ cereal bills are expected to increase another 74 percent in 2007/08.

“The economic, social and political costs are very serious. They threaten to undo the economic and political gains that Africa has made in recent years,” Annan said, calling for efforts to subsidize food for the poor, cut import tariffs, and put in place price controls on key crops.

“Governments need to put in place social protection policies that provide a safety net for the poor, to enable them to cope with economic and climatic shocks and high prices. Governments need to access food for their people, whether from their own or external resources,” he told a conference in Salzburg, Austria.