The threat of hunger and famine again stalk the planet after a stark warning in a report by the UN agency whose responsibility is to combat hunger. The World Food Programme urgently needs an extra $500 million a year to deal with the soaring cost of food and may even have to cut back on distribution.

The era of relatively cheap food, which was never really cheap for millions of people, is clearly drawing to a close. The price of wheat in the US has now hit $20 a bushel. While price increases in oil and gold grab the headlines the cost of a food basic, such as wheat, has greater ramifications for global security.

For the past 30 years, new technologies and freer trade combined to make food almost continuously cheaper. The price of wheat, for example, dropped by more than 80 per cent between 1973 and 2000, factoring in overall inflation.

In the last year, however, creeping rises became a surge. The real cost of wheat is now more than double what it was a few years ago. For rich nations this means spending more on food, for those countries less well off the rising price of food can be measured in lives and disease as well as political instability.

Demand, not supply, is driving the current food inflation. Meat and dairy produce are being consumed in greater numbers in newly prosperous parts of the world. On top of this the planet is entering a phase where some food is not grown to be eaten but to produce fuel and this has consequences for global farming.

Climate change too is having an impact as drought and flooding combine to wreck harvests in countries that used to export their food but now have to ensure that their own population have enough to eat. Food and water are the most basic resources, a shortage of either will have profound consequences.