WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The global economic downturn has compounded the food crisis, pushing more people over the brink of hunger and threatening stability around the world, the head of the United Nations' food relief agency said on Tuesday.
Food supplies are tight and expensive, and more people in poor countries are unable to afford what they need because of the recession, said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme.
"I think the world would like to focus on one crisis at a time, but we really can't afford to," Sheeran told Reuters after a speech to a think-tank and aid groups.
"These are not separate crises. The food crisis and the financial (crisis) are linking and compounding," she said, noting lack of food often leads to political instability.
Sheeran said the WFP needs about $6 billion this year for food aid, which it sends to about 100 million of the world's poorest people in 77 countries.
As of February 15, donor countries had contributed less than 10 percent of that total, or $453.4 million, including $171.6 million from the United States and $128.2 million from Japan.
Total contributions last year were $5.043 billion, up from $2.712 billion in 2007, WFP data showed.
Sheeran told Reuters she was worried that wealthy nations preoccupied with their own economic woes may not give enough to cover the WFP's requirements this year.
By May, the WFP will assess whether it needs to cut back on programs because of a lack of aid, Sheeran said.
In 2008, weather problems and surging demand for grain for food and biofuels pushed food prices to record highs, causing riots and hoarding in some countries.
Prices have since eased, but remain high.
"I'm really putting out the warning that ... we're in an era now where supplies are still very tight, very low, and very expensive," Sheeran said.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 963 million people worldwide were undernourished last year, up from 923 million in 2007.
The WFP has received requests for help this year from countries like Kyrgyzstan, whose economies rely on remittances -- help from citizens working outside the country.
Kyrgyzstan has not asked for WFP help since 1992, she said, but remittances have dried up due to the economic downturn.
"We have a case of the jitters out there," Sheeran said in her speech, noting Arthur Yap, agriculture secretary for the Philippines, had told her he did not feel confident the country could secure enough food this year.
In coming weeks, the WFP wants to announce a plan to "pre-position" grain for critical areas like Darfur and Ethiopia to avoid the kind of panic buying seen last year when prices soared, Sheeran said.
The WFP also will look at whether it should help develop some form of humanitarian grain stocks to help countries that can't compete in world markets during price peaks, she said.
"We need a back-up plan that was not in place last year," she said.
World leaders need to keep the global food crisis near the top of their agendas for upcoming summits, she said.
"I am worried that these issues are going to get relegated to (agriculture) ministers -- who are wonderful -- but they cannot do what needs to happen to move these issues across departments," Sheeran said.
Political will to end world hunger could go a long way to solving the problem, Sheeran said.
"This is not rocket science. We don't need a new discovery. Every tool exists," she said.