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.
Parliamentary elections last month brought a strong showing for Ahmadinejad's opponents, including Ali Larijani, his former top nuclear negotiator and now leading rival, who became speaker of the parliament. Iranian presidential elections are scheduled for 2009.
Mugabe announced his intention to attend the summit only at the last moment, and his presence brought the usual media frenzy. Security officials pushed and shoved camera crews as the 84-year-old arrived at his hotel in Rome.
Zimbabwe is suffering an enormous food crisis that many say stems not from climatic conditions but from government policies. Once the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe is currently host to a starving population.
Mugabe defended his land redistribution program that began a decade ago, in which land owned by 4,000 mostly white farmers was redistributed to some 300,000 supporters of the president. He blasted the United Kingdom for an orchestrated campaign against the policy which Mugabe said was leading to an illegal "regime change" in his country. He accused non-governmental organizations of channeling money to the opposition. In short, he maintains that the agriculture crisis gripping his country is part of a sinister plot of the West.
But the fact remains that most of the former farmland is now small, unproductive plots. Massive corruption, political instability and economic mismanagement have caused 1,000 percent or more inflation. Zimbabwe dollars are printed with expiration dates on them because they lose value so quickly. The hyperinflation means the value of the money keeps falling, making durable goods out of the reach of most families. In Zimbabwe in March, ABC News saw large grocery stores with shelves empty.
The recent elections meant that for the first time the parliament in Harare will be controlled by opposition parties, but the presidential election was forced to a second round despite claims that Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition, won the vote. The runoff is scheduled for later this month, but the campaign is clouded by violence, a lack of a free press, and the accusation today from the president of meddling by Western governments.
The Vatican sent a message of concern to the conference participants, but the pope's spokesman has confirmed that the pope will not be receiving any of the heads of state who will be in Rome over the next three days because there are "too many requests and too little time." This perhaps gets the Vatican out of the uncomfortable situation of having to receive leaders such as Ahmadinejad and Mugabe, though the Vatican is saying it is policy not to receive leaders who are in town for big conferences.
Despite closed streets, hovering helicopters and a heavy police presence, most Italians are taking little notice of the international gathering. Protests against Ahmadinejad have been called for at Rome's city hall, but demonstrations at the meeting by anti-globalization forces have been small.
Ann Wise and Phoebe Natanson contributed to this report