BERN, Switzerland (AP) -- The United Nations will establish a top-level task force to tackle food shortages and escalating prices that threaten to touch off a "cascade of related crises" around the world, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday.
Ban, who will lead the task force, said the group agreed on a series of measures for the medium and long term, with its first priority to meet the $755 million shortfall in funding for the World Food Program.
"Without full funding of these emergency requirements we risk again the specter of widespread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale," he told reporters in the Swiss capital, Bern, where the U.N. agency chiefs have been meeting.
Even if the shortfall is met, more money probably will be needed, he said.
Later, in a speech at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva, Ban said high food prices "could touch off a cascade of related crises - affecting trade, economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world."
The price increases have been dramatic, he said. "The price of rice in particular has gone from $400 a ton some weeks ago to more than $1,000 today."
Ban blamed the escalating prices on a range of factors - high oil prices, growing demand, bad trade policies, bad weather, panic buying and speculation, as well as, "the new craze of biofuels derived from food products."
"In addition to increasing food prices, we see at the same time farmers in developing countries planting less, producing less, due to the escalating cost of fertilizer and energy," he said. "We must make every effort to support those farmers so that in the coming year we do not see even more severe food shortages."
Ban suggested that efforts to ensure longer-term food supplies should focus on Africa. African countries could double their food production over a very few years for "a relatively modest" $8 billion to $10 billion annually, he said.
Like Southeast Asia in the last century, Africa could use the investment to implement new agricultural techniques that will create a "green revolution" of increased crop yields, Ban said.
He said the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization has developed a $1.7 billion plan to provide seeds to farmers in the world's poorest countries.
"We must make every effort to support those farmers," Ban said.
He said he hoped world leaders would come to a June meeting in Rome to find ways to alleviate the food crisis. He said the international community had previously not listened to warnings from the FAO and others.
World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who also attended the meeting, said 100 million people are estimated to have been pushed into poverty over the past two years.
"This is not a natural disaster," Zoellick said, urging countries to shore up the WFP's fund. "This crisis isn't over once the emergency needs are met."
Associated Press writers Alexander G. Higgins and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.