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Surging food prices not just threat, but also opportunity, says senior UN official

Surging food prices not just threat, but also opportunity, says senior UN official

The world must not only take immediate action to address the current food crisis, but also take advantage of the higher food prices by assisting farmers in developing countries to thwart similar situations in the future, the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today.

“The time for re-launching agriculture is now and the international community should not miss the opportunity,” the agency’s Director-General Jacques Diouf said in a statement.

A two-pronged approach – policies to assist the millions worldwide whose livelihoods are at risk and measures to help poor farmers take advantage of the rising prices – is necessary, he said.

“We must produce more food where it is urgently needed to contain the impact of soaring prices on poor consumers, and simultaneously boost productivity and expand production to create more income and employment opportunities for the rural poor,” the Director-General noted.

He said that small holders must have access to land and water, as well as to essential inputs including seeds and fertilizers. This will allow them to increase their supplies when prices are high, enhancing their incomes and livelihoods.

Countries must boost their spending on public resources for agriculture and rural development, which could spur private investment, according to FAO.

Historically, farmers in the developing world have had to contend with low prices and poor infrastructure, and limited access to technology and credit.

When many Asian governments faced climbing food prices in the 1970s, they responded by stepping up their spending on irrigation and agricultural research, leading to growth and preventing the descent of millions into hunger and poverty.

“A similar response is urgently needed today – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,” which is grappling with the problem of the lack of irrigation, Dr. Diouf observed.

The food crisis will be discussed in early June at the FAO-sponsored “High-Level Conference on World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy,” which will be attended by such Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

In a related development, the UN rural development arm has made nearly $72 million in loans and grants available for anti-poverty initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The funds were approved by the Executive Board of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome last week.

Programmes receiving IFAD assistance include an initiative in Cape Verde to improve the lives of 60,000 poor rural people by integrating them into the island nation’s rapidly expanding economy; a scheme in India seeking to improve the employment prospects of 95,000 poor households; and an initiative in the Philippines to reduce poverty among indigenous peoples in the north of the country.