'Silent Tsunami': The Food Price Crisis

Millions of people worldwide are facing starvation because of rising food costs.

LONDON, April 20, 2008— -- The surge in global food prices could set back the world's anti-poverty efforts and if the problem is not dealt with it could hurt global growth and security, warned United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"The problem of global food prices could mean seven lost years ... for the Millennium Development Goals," Ki-moon said at a U.N. trade and development conference in Accra, Ghana, in west Africa, referring to the eight goals set by the international organization to improve the lives of people around the world by 2015.

"If not handled properly, this crisis could result in a cascade of others ... and become a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world," Ki-moon said.

The secretary-general is just the latest to sound the growing alarm over the effect that rising food prices is having around the world.

The heads of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have also spoken out in recent weeks, calling for the leaders of the world's developed nations to increase their aid to global anti-poverty efforts like the U.N.'s World Food Program.

Rioting in Haiti brought the issue into sharp focus, but for weeks, tens of thousands of hungry people have been lining up for U.N. food handouts all around the world, from Latin America to Africa and Asia.

In parts of Asia the problem is already so bad that rice is now guarded by military escort.

According to the World Food Program, at least 850 million people are desperately hungry.

"The world's misery index is rising," UN World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran said. "(It is) a silent tsunami that respects no borders -- most don't know what hit them."

What has hit them is a worldwide skyrocketing price hike in food.

"There is a perfect storm that has emerged over this issue, a combination of factors: high fuel prices, high food commodity prices driven by the growth of economies in China and India, and then this phenomenon of bio fuel production, where fields that were once used to produce grain for human consumption are now being produced grain for fuel," Greg Barrow, London spokesman for World Food Program, told ABC News.

For most people in the West, who spend about 10 percent of their income on food, the increasing prices are just an inconvenience.

But in poor countries people spend 80 percent of their money to feed themselves. In Haiti, even U.N. food handouts were not enough to feed many of the hungry, who were forced to forage at garbage dumps for table scraps.

This kind of desperation in much of the world could threaten the United States, terrorism experts say.

"Anti-American groups such as al Qaeda will be able to mobilize marginalized, frustrated populations that are especially affected by the food crisis," professor Vanda Felbab-Brown, a security specialist at Georgetown University and at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News.

The food price crisis has been made even worse by private traders who are hoarding huge stockpiles of food because the price keeps going higher, Barrow said.

"There is no doubt that there is enough food in the world to feed the global population," he said. "It's access to that food that's the real issue, it's people who are going to shops, going to markets in the poorer countries, finding that they can't afford to buy food. Frustration is building."

That is why Barrow and others say that perfect storm is continuing to grow.