The international community is gathering in Italy for World Food Day on Tuesday with a round of UN-hosted talks on how to keep global food prices in check and help prevent future commodity market crises .
"Food prices are too volatile and are dangerously high," Olivier De Schutter, the UN s rapporteur on the right to food, said ahead of the meeting. De Schutter called for "immediate" action to help stabilise prices. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations is holding a week-long meeting of the Committee on World Food Security, which is made up of UN officials, farming experts and civil society representatives.
The latest UN data from earlier this month shows some 870 million people -- around one in eight people in the world -- are starving or under-nourished. That figure is considerably down from the 1990s when there were a billion hungry but still "far too high", according to FAO chief Jose Graziano da Silva.
There have also been market tensions this year after top producers like Europe, Russia and the Black Sea region revised down production forecasts, even though a crisis in the United States due to the drought never materialised. Global food prices rose by 1.4 percent in September after holding steady for two months as cereals, meat and dairy prices climbed, according to FAO s Food Price Index, which is still far off the record it reached in February 2011.
French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll will host talks on the sidelines of World Food Day on Tuesday to focus on prices and at least 36 ministers are expected to attend, a French official source said. The talks will focus on three issues: "transparency of the market, limiting price volatility and the possibility of creating and managing stocks in the most vulnerable countries", the source said on condition of anonymity. Ministers from Brazil, Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia and South Korea are set to take part, along with a "high-level" US official, the source said.
The French government had pushed for "an agricultural G20" in Rome to bring together farming ministers from 20 of the world s leading economies. It had also called for a meeting of the newly-established Rapid Reaction Forum to decide on emergency stocks in sensitive areas to counter price rises. The drive came from the 2007-8 food crisis which sparked upheaval in many parts of the world and a new focus in anti-hunger projects on fostering domestic production and markets instead of flooding countries with aid. But the United Nations has responded cautiously, with one FAO official saying: "We should not create a panic by sending the wrong signals."
De Schutter also stressed the need for planning, saying: "These policies have to be drawn up beforehand and not dictated by short-term considerations." While there is no food crisis at the moment, global stocks are low because of the drought that struck the central breadbasket of the United States. And with a spell of drought now affecting Australia, a French expert said that "strong uncertainty is likely to linger" in the southern hemisphere.
Harvests are down some 10 percent in Europe and the United States this year. FAO has warned that the knock-on effect is that the poorest countries in the world face a food import bill of $36.5 billion (28.2 billion euros). "The situation could get worse," said Thierry Kesteloor, an expert on food security at the charity group Oxfam International. He said the coming week was likely to see "a declaration of intentions rather than a real effort to the relaunch the political process".