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June 19, 2008

FAO holds African food security meeting in Kenya

African and United Nations experts gathered in Nairobi to discuss food security as Africa reels from a global food crisis triggered by surging energy and commodity prices.

The 25th Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Regional Conference for Africa, taking place in Kenya until Friday, is to discuss ways of boosting agriculture and food security, such as by improving water management.

It opened with a meeting of technical committees, due to be followed by a ministerial conference on Thursday.

"I am confident that the results of the deliberations will provide the organisation and its partners with recommendations and necessary guidance to help boost agricultural development and food security in Africa," FAO director general Jacques Diouf said in a statement.

Diouf said small-scale farmers and poor households will be the worst hit as they rely on markets that have been rattled by rising inflationary trends.

Food prices have doubled in three years, according to the World Bank, sparking riots in many African nations and elsewhere. Brazil, Vietnam, India and Egypt have all imposed food export restrictions.

The conference chairperson, Kenyan Agriculture Minister William Ruto, also blamed sluggish agriculture for the current food crisis.

"Food and nutrition insecurity is a growing problem brought about by the slow growth of the agricultural sector," Ruto said in a statement published in newspapers.

"The insecurity is further exacerbated by the global rise in food prices brought about by the rising demand for cereals, weather-related supply shocks, high cost of energy and increased prices for fertilisers and other inputs," Ruto added.

Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to suffer particularly heavily from global food price inflation.

Inflation in Kenya, East Africa's largest economy, hit 31,5% in May, the highest in 14 years, owing to erratic rains and disruptions on the supply-chain spurred by recent political violence.

Experts say Africa's spending on cereal imports is expected to rise by more than half in 2008, with countries like Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal and Nigeria -- among the world's top rice importers -- suffering most because their import source in southeast Asia is reeling from similar problems.

The situation has been worsened by steep fuel prices that have raised transport and utility costs, they say.

Many countries, notably Kenya, have responded by slashing import duties, introducing subsidies and export bans, but experts warn that these knee-jerk reactions may be difficult to undo when food prices ease.

A FAO crisis summit early in June in Rome pledged $6,5-billion in emergency food relief and vowed to halve global hunger by 2015 by taking "urgent" action over the global food crisis.

A recent FAO report estimated that, to meet rising demand, food production must double by 2030.

Despite record production in 2008, food prices are expected to remain high, impacting on the world's poor and sparking riots in countries reliant on imports, the FAO report said.

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