World leaders are meeting Tuesday in Rome to tackle the problem that is pushing an estimated 100 million people into hunger: soaring food prices. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization — or FAO — is sponsoring the three-day summit. More than 40 world leaders are there, including two of the most controversial: Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Some of the causes of soaring food prices are clear: high oil prices, changing diets, urbanization, growing populations and extreme weather. Others are more debatable: flawed trade policies, increased biofuel production and commodity speculation.
According to the U.N., over 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and many millions more are at risk.
The price of rice has doubled since January, while the cost of dairy products, soya beans, wheat and sugar have also surged in recent months. FAO Assistant Director-General Alexander Muller says this is a completely new situation.
"We have new vulnerabilities," Muller says. "Poor people in the city who are not able to buy enough food, they are protesting. We have riots in the streets. We have social problems in several countries....so this is an urgent need to really invest more in agriculture."
The summit is expected to call for the establishment of a global food fund and see pledges of food aid from wealthy countries to poor nations to ward off food shortages.
In a key policy document prepared for the summit, the FAO says the international community should take urgent and concrete actions to address the issues of hunger and malnutrition caused by rising food prices.
On the eve of the conference, the FAO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued a joint report that warned that the urban poor in food-importing countries will require increased humanitarian aid to stave off hunger and undernourishment that can also lead to civil strife.
The summit risks being overshadowed by Zimbabwe's Mugabe and Iran's Ahmadinejad.
Mugabe's presence in Rome has caused international outrage at a time when millions of people in his country face hunger due to food shortages caused by his policies.
And Ahmadinejad added fuel to his virulent anti-Israel stance, saying Monday that Israel will soon disappear off the map and that the satanic power of the United States faces destruction.