GENEVA (Reuters) - Leading figures from the United Nations met in Switzerland on Monday to chart a solution to dramatic food price increases that have caused hunger, riots and hoarding in poor countries around the world.
Vietnam acted to quell panic over rice supplies on Monday, banning speculation in the market after a "chaotic" buying binge in the Southeast Asian nation highlighted growing global fears about food security.
The move by the world's second-biggest rice exporter came as protests continued in some states in Africa over soaring costs for food and fuel which aid experts say threaten to push 100 million people worldwide into hunger.
Against this backdrop, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened the heads of 27 international agencies including the World Bank, World Food Programme, and World Trade Organisation to coordinate a response.
Officials familiar with the closed-door session said the main priority was to ensure that food aid reached those desperately affected by surging prices of wheat, rice, dairy products and other dietary staples.
Ban, who has described rising food prices as a "global crisis" and urged world leaders to discuss ways to improve food distribution systems and production, will address the press in the Swiss capital Berne on Tuesday.
Experts have linked the problems to factors including drought in Australia, higher fuel costs, the use of crops for biofuels and speculation on global commodity markets.
Reacting to heavy buying of rice over the weekend, Vietnam's Communist government asked authorities to regulate local markets and ban non-food traders from trading the grain.
Queues and empty shelves were still evident on Monday in Vietnam, which like other nations has felt the impact of a nearly threefold rise in rice prices this year.
The rally was triggered by export curbs by top suppliers including Vietnam itself, which banned exports until the end of June.
The events in Vietnam came as the Philippines said it has asked the World Bank to persuade rice-exporting nations to lift shipment curbs threatening importing countries' food security.
"I have asked the World Bank if it's possible to use its moral persuasion, its stature, its influence to talk to the supplier countries," Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said.
Concern about soaring food costs and limited supplies have toppled Haiti's government and caused riots in parts of Africa.
In West Africa, more than 1,000 people marched through Senegal's capital Dakar at the weekend to protest against rising food prices. In Guinea, about 50 demonstrators marched peacefully in the capital Conakry on Monday.
In war-ravaged Somalia, runaway inflation has made the problem worse. "People will soon start to starve because they have no income," said Yahye Sheikh Amir, economics dean at Mogadishu University.
However, there could be some relief in coming weeks.
The frantic pace of price increases in Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter, looks set to cool, a Thai rice exporter said, thanks to improved supplies.
"The market is likely to correct up to 20 percent even if the bans by India and Vietnam remain," Korbsook Iamsuri, the secretary general of the Thai Rice Exporters' Association, told Reuters on Monday.
"Crop arrivals are much better than ... three weeks ago," she said, as Thai prices remained above the historic $1,000 per tonne level reached a week ago.
Futures prices for rice traded in Chicago slid on Monday on expectations of improved supplies from Asia.
Also on Monday, a group of U.S. Senate Democrats called on President George W. Bush to support a $200 million increase in international food aid this year beyond the spending boost the White House has already requested.
"This is the worst global food crisis in more than 30 years. It threatens not only the health and survival of millions of people around the world, many of them children, but it also is a threat to global security," said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat.
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(Additional reporting by Grant McCool, Ho Binh Minh and Nguyen Huy Kham in Vietnam, Sambit Mohanty in Singapore, Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Thailand, Carmel Crimmins in Philippines, Saliou Samb in Conakry)