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Latest update : 2009-04-19

Farm ministers from the world's leading industrialised and developing nations are gathered in northeast Italy for talks on food security and ways to overcome a global food crisis that could worsen in the current economic downturn.

REUTERS -  Farm ministers from the world's most developed nations look likely to focus on how to raise world food production, rather than take action to curb commodity speculation or create grain stocks.

Instead of coming up with a concrete financial package to boost farming in the Third World, debate at the first ever meeting of farm ministers from G8 and G5 states has shifted towards options for improving food security and raising output.

The meeting, which brings together ministers from the Group of Eight industrialised countries, as well as ministers from Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, Australia and Egypt, is taking place in Italy from Saturday to Monday.

Some months ago it was suggested that the G8-G5 meeting might reach a deal on global grain reserves to mitigate price shocks and reduce speculative commodity trade. That idea now seems to be on the backburner, not least for the United States.

Speaking in an interview, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack cautioned against it, saying: "Our recent experience with that concept was that in theory, it sounds like a terrific idea but in practice it was very difficult."

"What we saw was that it really didn't create the kind of stability in pricing that people thought it would. What it actually created was a kind of 'feast or famine' mentality."

World cereal prices soared to record highs in the first half of last year, driving up food prices and leading to riots in some developed countries, along with a series of commodity export bans. Since then prices have fallen back, mainly thanks to larger harvests in 2008.

Jacques Diouf, director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said resolving global issues, including major financial packages to promote agriculture, would require the involvement of many countries, not just the G8.

"I don't think that anybody expected the ministerial meeting ... will be able to come up with an action plan," Diouf told Reuters in an interview.

"The fact that they are willing to discuss these issues with ministers of other countries is a positive element. It is an opportunity to share experience, analyse the situation and forge a common vision," he said.

Speculation, food production

New measures to curb speculation in commodity markets, which many critics say helped push up food prices and raise the number of hungry people in the world to nearly 1 billion, also looks unlikely to appear on the final summit declaration.

The priority, ministers say, should be -- apart from a possible pledge to increase development aid, something which is likely to remain vague at the sunmmit -- to do something to ensure that agricultural output rises globally, especially in the Third World, and at an affordable price for local consumers.

"The single most important thing you can do is to get agricultural production up. We all have a responsibility that when crisis strikes, people have got enough food to eat," said British Food Minister Hilary Benn.

"We know we have got more mouths to feed and the answer to all these problems is to get agricultural production up so there's greater supply but at the same time to ensure that people have the ability to buy it," he said in an interview.

Whether the ministers, meeting in a hillside castle in northern Italy, will agree exactly how global agricultural production should or could be increased remains to be seen.

But farmers from poor and rich countries alike want to get more funds for agriculture, saying the sector has been neglected since the economic crisis broke out.

Billions of dollars have been disbured to prop up ailing banks, while funds are drying up to help the world's almost 1 billion hungry people, advocates for the poor say.

The FAO and other campaigners against hunger will push for more funds and other assistance to help low-income countries boost productivity, improve water supplies and training as well as give better access to international markets.

Richer countries are also keen to protect their markets. Russia, the largest importer of U.S. chickens, aims to become self-sufficient in poultry and pork in two years.

Date created : 2009-04-19