Amid a sharp rise in global food prices, world leaders gathered under tight security in Rome for the opening of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) summit on food security and supplies.
Heads of state from 44 nations are attending, including the controversial president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The dramatic rise in the basic cost of food – some 53 percent in the first four months of this year – has created riots in poorer countries from the Caribbean to Africa. FAO's president, Jacques Diouf, reported to the assembled world leaders that 800 million people go hungry each year.
"No one could ignore the dramatic crisis that has exploded," the host nation's president, Italian Giorgio Napolitano, told the delegates.
Among the issues being debated: climate change that is blamed on increased floods and droughts; an increase in biofuel use that has diverted food crops from feeding people to fuelling tanks; the high costs of fertilizer because of increasing petroleum prices; Western nations' agricultural subsidies; and the lack of investment in the agriculture worldwide.
But the urgent topics of the meeting have been somewhat overshadowed by the presence of two of the Western world's biggest pariah leaders: Iran's Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe's Mugabe. Many international broadcasters interrupted their schedules to carry the two leaders' speeches live but did not do the same for the summit's primary speakers.
As heads of state in their respective countries, Mugabe and Ahmadinejad are allowed, under United Nations guidelines, the same opportunity to speak as other world leaders.
This is the Iranian president's first visit to the European Union. His first statements on arrival in Italy were not about food security but about the destruction of Israel. He blamed Israel for creating "great damage" in both political and economic costs which fall "on the shoulders of Europe."
"I don't think my statements create any problems. The people like my words," Ahmadinejad said.
Then, at the United Nations summit, Ahmadinejad blamed the UN and its decision-making process — particularly the Security Council — for the food crisis. A new organization was needed, he said, to oversee production all the way through to consumption.
He also lashed out at those countries that were trying to block Iran's nuclear development, calling them the same nations that profited from the high prices of oil and agricultural products for biofuels.
"On one hand these people keep the prices of oil, energy and consumer taxes artificially high and encourage biofuels derived from food products, and on the other hand they create a pretext for increasing the prices of foodstuffs."
Ahmadinejad is facing increasing criticism at home from both left- and right-wing political movements. His government has been unable to reduce unemployment and the economy remains sluggish despite rising oil revenues.
Over strong international resistance, the Iranian president continues to spearhead a nuclear program, which he insists is for energy use. The United Nations has slapped sanctions on the country for failing to allow complete inspection of its nuclear program — one that the United States and some allies believe is a cover for developing a nuclear weapons program.