OTTAWA - Canada is boosting its food aid by $50 million to help developing countries deal with rising food prices that have led to riots and unrest around the globe.

The federal government is giving $45 million more to the UN World Food Program this year, and an extra $5 million to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a coalition of church-based agencies.

"This is a significant contribution which will have a real impact in helping starving people around the world," said Bev Oda, minister responsible for the Canadian International Development Agency.

The new money represents a 28 per cent increase in funds already earmarked this year for international food aid, bringing the total commitment to $230 million.

The injection was quickly welcomed by aid groups.

"It's very positive and the government should be commended," said Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group representing non-profit agencies.

Barr also welcomed the government's plan to loosen some of the rules requiring countries that receive the aid money to purchase food from the donor country. The move means that in many cases, aid recipients will be able to buy cheaper food closer to home.

But some aid groups say Ottawa is also hurting poor countries through its plan to spend $2.2 billion over nine years to develop the biofuel industry, which has increased the energy sector's demand for food items such as corn.

"We need to stop this practice of producing corn to feed SUVs when in fact we need that corn to feed people," said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada.

"There is lots of evidence in Canada and globally that investing in biofuels is ... accelerating the increase in food prices that is putting millions of people on this planet in jeopardy day-to-day."

Oda said there are several reasons for rising food prices, including high energy costs and burgeoning demand in China and India. She also said Canada's biofuel industry is not a major drain on crops.

"Actually, 95 per cent of Canada's agricultural land is used to feed people in Canada and around the world," she said.

"Our biofuel approach is balanced and realistic. We have a five per cent (ethanol requirement in gasoline by 2010), unlike the Liberals and New Democrats, who are asking for twice as high a level."

The food crisis, which has sparked violent riots in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, has the Liberals rethinking their position.

"We're having some meetings on this. ... We'll look at all of the evidence," said Keith Martin, the party's critic for international co-operation.

"We're always reconsidering our policies according to new scientific evidence and new studies," said Liberal Leader Stephane Dion.

The new aid commitments come after the United Nations issued an urgent worldwide plea for an extra $755 million in help for poor countries. The deadline for aid commitments is Thursday.

A number of countries, including Germany and Switzerland, have already committed additional money to the UN program.

Last year, Canada donated $161 million to the program, second only to the United States.

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