Food subsidy cuts increase rioting risk, U.N. official says

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ROME -- Risks of global instability are rising as governments cut subsidies that help the poor cope with surging food and fuel costs to ease budget crunches, the head of the United Nations' World Food Program says.

"We're in an era where the world and nations ignore the food issue at their peril," Josette Sheeran said in an interview at the agency's Rome headquarters.

The global recession has eroded government aid that helped people in poorer countries afford bread, cooking oils and other staples. The trend raises the odds of unrest even though prices have improved in many nations from 2007-2009, Ms. Sheeran said. During that period, more than 60 food riots occurred worldwide, according to the State Department.

The U.N.'s Food Price Index surged to 214.8 in December, exceeding the previous record in 2008 when rising costs and fears of shortages sparked riots from Haiti to Egypt. More than 100 people have died this month in protests in Tunisia against food inflation, unemployment and alleged corruption, according to the U.N., and at least three were killed in Algeria.

Global output of all cereals, including rice, wheat and corn, will drop 1.4 percent to 2.23 billion metric tons this season, while demand will rise 1.8 percent to 2.26 billion tons, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in December. That will push global stockpiles 6 percent lower to 525 million tons, and mark the first cereal deficit since the 2008 food crisis, according to the U.N. agency data.

In the Philippines, where the World Bank estimates one out of four live on less than $1.25 a day, the government raised the retail price of rice sold from state stockpiles by 8 percent Dec. 7.

The Philippines, the world's biggest rice importer, will curb sales of the grain from state stockpiles this year and will reduce the size of the inventory to about 30-days worth of consumption, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said. Stockpiles were equal to 52 days of consumption in October.

President Benigno Aquino's government plans to cut rice imports, even though the nation's crop was decimated by the heaviest rainfall in at least four decades in late 2009 and drought in early 2010, following by flooding.

"Many of the world's subsidy regimes and support regimes have shrunk," Ms. Sheeran said last week.

Global food costs jumped 25 percent last year to an all- time high in December because of record sugar and meat prices, according to the U.N.

Countries probably spent at least $1 trillion on imports, with the poorest paying as much as 20 percent more than in 2009, the U.N. says.


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