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Prices feed fear of hunger, unrest

World food prices are set to fall from current peaks in the coming years but will remain “substantially above” average levels from the past decade, a report said Thursday.

The world's poorest nations are most vulnerable — particularly the urban poor in food-importing countries — and will require increased humanitarian aid to stave off hunger and undernourishment, according to a joint agricultural report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Rising prices now translate, unfortunately, as an increase in hunger and civil strife. Uncertainty rules, and our people are worried,” FAO chief Jacques Diouf told a Paris news conference.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria, at his side, added: “The end of cheap food in a world where half the population lives with less than two dollars a day is a source of grave concern.”

High oil prices, changing diets, urbanization, expanding populations, flawed trade policies, extreme weather, growth in biofuel production and speculation have sent food prices soaring worldwide, triggering protests from Africa to Asia and raising fears that millions more will suffer malnutrition.

The report was based on a forecast of the cereals, oilseeds, sugar, meats, milk and dairy products markets for the period 2008 to 2017. It reflects agriculture and trade policies in place in early 2008 and includes an assessment of the biofuels markets for bioethanol and biodiesel.

Despite the price hikes, general price levels have remained “remarkably stable,” suggesting that inflation in the coming decade will “remain low,” the report says.

“We do not expect the current price levels to last. But the average of most agricultural commodity prices over the next 10 years will still exceed the average of the previous decade by 10 to 50 percent, depending on the commodity,” Gurria said.

Compared with the previous decade, the report said average prices from 2008-2017 for beef and pork will rise 20 percent; sugar around 30 percent; wheat, maize and skim milk powder 40 to 60 percent; butter and oilseeds more than 60percent; and vegetable oils over 80 percent.

Besides investing in agriculture, the report recommends helping poorer countries to diversify their economies and improve governance and administrative systems.

The two international bodies also urged governments to rethink trade-restricting policies, such as protecting domestic producers through high price support, export taxes and trade embargoes.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick also called for governments of developed nations to not impose export restrictions or tariffs on food that could be funneled to relief agencies or countries facing severe food shortages.

Zoellick, speaking on the sidelines of an African development conference being held this week in Japan, said taxes and bans were “exacerbating the problem.”

Such controls make it harder for organizations like the World Food Program to distribute emergency food aid.

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