Warning of food riots as world cereal prices hit record highs

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FOOD riots in developing countries will spread unless world leaders take major steps to reduce prices for the poor, the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned yesterday.

World cereal production will rise, but record prices are unlikely to fall, forcing poorer countries' food import bills up 56 per cent and hungry people on to the streets, the FAO's director-general, Jacques Diouf, said.

"The reality is that people are dying already in the riots," he told a news conference. "They are dying because of their reaction to the situation and if we don't take the necessary action there is certainly the possibility that they might die of starvation. Naturally, people won't be sitting dying of starvation, they will react."

More warnings about the impact of food price rises came yesterday from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. It said the price of rice, a staple food for three billion people, will continue to rise despite increasing 70 per cent this year alone.

Soaring food prices have made themselves felt in the pockets of Western consumers and brought a rethink on the wisdom of promoting biofuels, production of which drives up the cost of food crops. However, they have hit much harder in countries were people live on as little as 50p a day.

The FAO noted yesterday that food riots had broken out in several African countries, as well as Indonesia, the Philippines and Haiti. Thailand and Pakistan have seen food scares, with military personnel sent to guard rice crops and transport depots.

Food crises loom in 37 countries, the FAO said in its latest World Food Situation report.

Increased food demand from richer consumers in the growing economies of China and India, the use of biofuels to combat global warming, global food stocks at 25-year lows and market speculation are all blamed for pushing the price of wheat, maize and rice to record highs.

The effect is far more pronounced in developing countries, where 50-60 per cent of income goes on food, compared with 10-20 per cent in the developed world.

Several Asian countries have imposed controls on rice exports. Its price jumped 40 per cent in three days recently, when India and Vietnam banned exports, an FAO official said.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, this week called for a co-ordinated global response to the food crisis. In France, the agriculture minister, Michel Barnier, said food must get "absolute priority" over biofuels in crop production, and urged countries to fulfil pledges to the United Nations' World Food Programme, which is more than 400 million in deficit.

Expanded crop plantings this year should mean a 2.6 per cent increase in cereal output, with wheat up 6.8 per cent on last year, the FAO has forecast. However, with only a small proportion of that reaching the open market, the effect on prices would be negligible, it warned.

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