WASHINGTON, May 2 (Reuters) - Strained aid groups are already cutting food assistance to hundreds of thousands of people the world over, raising fears they will be powerless to stem rising hunger in the most vulnerable countries.
The reduction in food aid is a consequence of the dramatic surge in global food and fuel prices, a trend that makes food more dear for the world's poor while eating into aid budgets.
Atlanta-based CARE has cut the size of its rations to the 660,000 people it feeds in Somalia, and warns that it needs an extra $25 million worth of food to feed more than 800,000 people through early August.
"Food stocks will run out mid to end of May ... Numbers of displaced people needing food grow daily and the cost of food keeps going up," said Alina Labrada, a CARE spokeswoman.
Mercy Corps, which distributes baskets of sugar, rice and other food to Iraqi refugees in Syria, is agonizing over whether it will reduce ration sizes or cut needy families.
In southern Sudan, World Vision now expects to feed 59,000 fewer people this year than it had originally planned.
"The reductions are not just confined to one region," said Robert Zachritz, a senior World Vision official.
Overall, global food prices jumped 43 percent in the year through March. That hurts the most in the developing world, where people typically spend over half their income on food.
On Friday, southeast Asian trade officials met in Indonesia for talks on how to respond to soaring prices of rice, which have almost trebled this year in Asia.
The food crisis has donor countries scrambling to help the United Nations' World Food Program fill a funding gap of $755 million and keep aid donations on track this year.
The Bush administration has already released aid from a crop trust, and this week announced $770 million in new food aid and farm development funds for next year.
But the situation on the ground remains a grim one, especially as Africa's pre-harvest hungry season approaches, and many aid groups are already making difficult choices.
"This is an unprecedented crisis for us, because it's global," said Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw, of Catholic Relief Services -- a crisis felt in most of the 100 places CRS works.
The crisis is an extra strain on the 850 million people considered "chronically hungry" even before the current crisis -- and officials say that number is sure to grow.
Most vulnerable are the over 1 billion people who live on less $1 a day, the United Nations says.
Many groups are still in talks with the U.S. Agency for International Development about the volume of wheat, soy or other foodstuff they'll get this year -- aid contracts are awarded in dollar terms -- but they fear the worst.
CRS has already cut the tonnage of food it sends to Haiti by 12 percent. It's also scaling down a food aid program in India far faster than it had planned, and will feed 100,000 fewer people next year than was planned.
"It's very clear that this is not going to go away," said Bob Bell, a senior official at CARE.
CARE and other aid groups, which typically rely on a mix of government, international, foundation, and individual donations, are scrambling to pull in greater private funding.
As aid workers struggle to understand the extent of the problem in poor countries, some are also turning to little-used or new aid measures to minimize the impact of tight budgets.
Those may include cash vouchers, cash-for-work programs, or subsidized fertilizer.
Mercy Corps has set up a special food crisis fund that it hopes will allow it to bypass the lengthy funding process and act quickly when hunger strikes, possibly providing farm tools, seeds or other agriculture inputs.
"That way there is a harvest later on ... We're trying to think creatively," said Penny Anderson, who heads food security for the group, which works in places like Afghanistan.
Catholic Relief Services will work in coming months to help about 20,000 farmers in 10 countries get access to nitrogen fertilizer, hopefully allowing them to boost rice crops and have an option to costly imported rice.
"What I'm trying to focus on is seeing the silver lining in this cloud and how we can help poor farmers seize this opportunity," Tom Remington, who oversees Catholic Relief Services' agriculture work in Africa, said from his home in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
Still, aid groups insist that the current crisis illustrates the need for major, sustained investment in transforming agriculture, especially in Africa.
"Food aid is an immediate solution, but it shouldn't be seen as a long-term solution," Zachritz said. "Farmers in the developing world need access to credit, inputs and markets."
Above all, aid workers caution that agriculture investment must occur over many years, and say the world cannot lose interest when prices ebb and a new crisis takes center stage.
"Agriculture just doesn't turn on a dime like that," Remington said.