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A woman collects wheat grains left on the ground at Bhagatanwala grain market in Amritsar, India, on Friday. A sharp rise in food prices has developed into a global crisis, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday. ((Aman Sharma/Associated Press))

The United Nations said Tuesday it would set up a high-level task force headed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to tackle the global food crisis.

Ban said UN leaders will take a series of medium and long-term measures, with the first priority the $755-million US shortfall in funding for the World Food Program, much of it because of soaring world grain prices.

The secretary general told reporters in the Swiss capital, Berne, that the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has a $1.7-billion plan to provide seeds for farmers in the world's poorest countries.

"Without full funding of these emergency requirements, we risk again the spectre of widespread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale," Ban said. "We anticipate that additional funding will be required," he said.

A UN statement released at the same time said the world's poor were hardest hit by rising food costs and there was worse to come.

"We consider that the dramatic escalation in food prices worldwide has evolved into an unprecedented challenge of global proportions that has become a crisis for the world's most vulnerable, including the urban poor," the UN statement said, "The challenge is having multiple effects with its most serious impact unfolding as a crisis for the most vulnerable."

'We will do what we say': Oda

Despite promises made in 1999, Canada has a poor track record in fulfilling its commitments for food aid.

The Canadian government is expected to announce Wednesday it is increasing its budget for foreign aid in a response to the WFP's urgent appeal.

Canada's current contribution to the WFP is $161 million annually.

Speaking during Tuesday's question period in the House of Commons, Bev Oda, minister for the Canadian International Development Agency, said the government will follow through on its pledges to boost foreign aid.

"We know that all Canadians take very seriously the impact that the price of food is having on the poorest and hungriest in the world," Oda told the House. "But I tell you, our government promised to double the amount of international assistance and we will do that. Our government promised to double assistance to Africa. We will do what we say."

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said Canada "should be leading the way" when it comes to contributing to international efforts to combat hunger.

"I think we should be responding very positively to what the secretary general proposes," Rae told reporters Tuesday outside the House of Commons.

100 million more in poverty: World Bank

The new task force will be made up of UN agency chiefs and the head of the World Bank, officials said.

The soaring cost of rice and other developing world staples has already led to riots in impoverished Haiti and export bans by India, Thailand, Vietnam and other major rice-producing countries.

Meanwhile, the president of the World Bank warned Tuesday that banning exports of rice would have little overall effect on local supplies, but the distortions in trade might make things worse for the poor.

Robert Zoellick also said wheat, corn and rice prices were likely to rise even more, as demand for food-grains continues in China and other emerging economies.

He said 100 million people are estimated to have been pushed into poverty over the past two years.

"This crisis isn't over once the emergency needs are met," said Zoellick, who also attended the Berne meeting. "We can't just replay this year after year after year."

A spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Rome, Brenda Barton, told CBC News that more crops need to be planted, and more money invested in farms and infrastructure to lift world food stocks from their current, dangerously low level. Canadians, Barton said, have a specific role to play.

"People in Canada can support the Canadian government in its generosity," she said. "Canada is already WFP's No. 2 donor and that's set to continue."

With files from the Associated Press