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U.N. forms task force to ease food crisis

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  • NEW: World Bank president calls the next few weeks critical
  • U.N. chief asks countries to honor outstanding pledges to World Food Program
  • World Food Program needs $775 million in emergency funding, U.N. chief says
  • Violence related to food prices has erupted in Haiti, Egypt and Bangladesh
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(CNN) -- The United Nations is establishing a task force to address the global food crisis, which is "increasingly resulting in social tension," the world body said Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, seen earlier this month, says, "We must feed the hungry."

"Mounting hunger and increasing evidence of severe malnutrition is evident and the capacities of humanitarian agencies to meet these needs is under severe strain, particularly as pledged funding remains undelivered," the U.N. Chief Executives Board said in a communiqué.

The task force's first priority will be to meet the World Food Program's emergency requirement of $775 million, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a news conference in Bern, Switzerland.

"The first and immediate priority issue that we all agreed was that we must feed the hungry," said Ban, who will lead the task force.

"Without full funding of these emergency requirements, we risk again the specter of widespread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale. We anticipate that additional funding will be required."

He also asked the international community, particularly developed countries, to honor outstanding pledges to the WFP.

Soaring food prices, propelled by rising energy and fertilizer costs, unfavorable weather and increased demand, are creating what the WFP's executive director has called "a silent tsunami" in developing nations.

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"What we are seeing now is affecting more people on every continent, destroying even more livelihoods, and the nutrition losses will hurt children for a lifetime," the WFP's Josette Sheeran said on the agency's Web site.

"This is the new face of hunger -- the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are."

At the Bern news conference Tuesday, World Bank President Robert Zoellick called the next few weeks critical in addressing the crisis.

"For 2 billion people, high food prices are now a matter of daily struggle, sacrifice and, for too many, even survival. We estimate already some 100 million people may have been pushed into poverty as a result of high prices over the last two years," Zoellick said.

"This is not a natural disaster. Make no mistake, there's nothing natural about it. But for millions of people, it is a disaster."

He noted that "rice and corn prices are likely to remain high, and wheat relatively so."

He said the World Bank will work with U.N. agencies to provide financing and other support for the neediest countries.

The skyrocketing cost of food has triggered violence in some countries, including Haiti, Bangladesh and Egypt. And Sheeran has said the crisis is forcing the organization to reduce aid to some recipients.

Ban said Tuesday that farmers in developing countries can no longer afford to plant as many crops as they once did because of the rising cost of fertilizer and energy.

"We must make every effort to support those farmers so that in the coming year we do not see even more severe food shortages," Ban said.

The Chief Executives Board's communiqué said a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization initiative has called for $1.7 billion to provide some developing countries with seeds and other materials such as fertilizers to boost food production.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development, another U.N. agency, is giving $200 million to "poor farmers in the most affected countries," the communiqué said.

"What is happening is something that we knew would happen," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said in Bern.

"We alerted in a timely manner the world community. Unfortunately, we didn't take a decision at the appropriate time, and as a consequence, people have died." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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