The food crisis in the developing world is far from over, and international emergency food agencies are bracing for the next blow.
Cheques are due from donor countries like Canada on massive recent funding commitments, but many of the promises were made before recession and trillion-dollar bailouts left rich nations with crushing deficits. Even the most reliable donors are taking a hard look at foreign aid as gross domestic product declines, said Henk-Jan Brinkman, a senior economist at the United Nations World Food Program.
Italy, Ireland, and the Netherlands, one of the world's most generous donors, have announced they will cut aid or fall short of earlier promises.
"Countries in general are under pressure now. We believe our shortfall of some $3-billion is a result of donors having so much trouble with budget deficits," Mr. Brinkman said in an interview. "Meanwhile, hunger has broadened and deepened over the past year."
The WFP says food aid is at a 20-year low, and only half of its $6.7-billion budget to feed 108 million people has been confirmed.
Canada, which Mr. Brinkman noted has a strong record of funding food assistance, committed in July to a big aid increase and has shown no sign of backing away.
A recent WFP survey of five developing countries found smaller non-governmental organizations are already feeling the pinch as private and public donations dry up.
Meanwhile, the global crisis is worsening the hunger in the developing world caused by drought and war. In Kenya and across eastern Africa, four years of drought have left 24 million people in desperate need.
A global food-security conference at Montreal's McGill University heard of renewed interest from funding agencies in agricultural research. Interest in paying for inexpensive, immediate nutritional solutions such as vitamin A supplements and nutrient fortification has lagged badly. "Listening to our finance friends, I almost got the impression the food crisis is over," said Dyno Keatinge, director of the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan.
"The food crisis is by no means over. We are never going to see the era of cheap food again; the era of cheap food is over."
Mr. Keatinge said he doubts agencies will get most of the $22-billion committed last summer at The Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy.
After almost a decade of steady rises, food prices spiked in 2008, nearly doubling over 2005 prices and triggering riots in 34 countries. UN estimates of the number of hungry people in the world rose above one billion for the first time.
Prices for rice and wheat declined with the start of the financial crisis a year ago, as trade collapsed and fuel prices dropped. But food prices rose again in 2009 and, in most developing countries, remain 20-per-cent above the previous five-year average.
"Unfortunately, the crisis wiped out all of the gains of the past 15 to 20 years," said Aly Shady, a senior adviser for the Canadian International Development Agency.
While recession reduced pressure on food prices, the hungry were also hit by the income shock that came with economic decline.
The United Nations estimates some 2 to 3 billion people are malnourished as high prices and low income force the poor to cut meat and vegetables from their diets.