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Food Crisis Continues, Especially in Sub-Saharan Africa

With much of the world in the grip of an economic crisis, little is heard about the food crisis, which was the center of attention earlier this year. Nevertheless, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says the crisis continues and could get worse in 2009.

Abdolreza Abbassian, secretary for the FAO's Inter-Governmental Group on Grains in Rome, told VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua that Africa is still feeling the effects of the food crisis.

"African countries are on the frontline of having major problem. Aside from North Africa, prices are basically, if not higher… remaining at high levels. They haven't really come down. So, those countries are actually…suffering from the elevated price levels. So, the situation in Africa is particularly of concern and for them the food crisis is far from being over," he says.

But what about elsewhere? Abbassian says, "The thing is that what was going on for so many months – all the way from the middle of 2006 up until a few months ago – was a continuous surge in international prices of basic food commodities. This created…so many problems for importing countries and some fragile countries even faced riots and political instability…. To the extent that the international markets have really made a sharp downturn, partly because of, in fact, the financial crisis, but partly also because of a recovery in production, one may say that (for) the international markets, at least…the crisis is over," he says.

However, that doesn't tell the whole story. "Unfortunately, though, at the national level this is not taking place…. It is a bit unfortunate that too much emphasis on the financial crisis is taking the attention away from what's happening actually in the markets. In domestic markets of many countries, especially poorer ones, prices not only haven't come down, but they have actually continued to increase. And this was expected because many countries imported when prices were extremely high and now they are basically transferring those prices into the domestic markets. And their population is still facing very high…prices for basic food," he says.

In June, world leaders held an emergency summit in Rome to address the food crisis and pledged $22 billion. But most of what was pledged has not been forthcoming. Abbassian says, "As much as the international community seemed committed to come to the rescue of world agriculture – and with all the promises made…only a very small amount of that money seems to be coming through, perhaps something far less than even a billion. And even that is not very clear…. So far, the results have been extreme disappointing."

He blames that on all the attention given the financial crisis, which has resulted in bailout packages far exceeding the $22 billion pledged in Rome.

The FAO official says experts did not believe the food crisis would simply end due to a one-year food production increase. It's more complex. "The attention duly paid to the situation was simply to raise awareness that we need to invest in agriculture in the long term. That is where the solution lies. One year of production and another year down is not really the issue. The issue was that we don't have stability in the system, that any shortfall here and there would always result in a price surge. So, those sort of investments were what we were looking to see and we haven't got. What we have received is really completely unrelated to pledges made or help to the agriculture (sector). It had a lot to do with Mother Nature, especially in countries which had problems in 2007. They actually had a major recovery in 2008 and also to a huge response by many farmers, but not in developing or poor countries, but actually farmers in developed countries, especially in the US, but also in the European Union and other developed regions," he says.

Responding to higher world prices, these farmers expanded planting. But in poorer countries, this didn't happen, in part because many farmers were not expecting to see benefits if they did expand production.

Abbassian says that the outlook for 2009 remains unclear, despite some increase in production and improved weather in certain areas.

"It is a bit too early to really come up with…a definite outlook. We are already witnessing some declines in plantings -- that is, in fact, even in the developed countries from North America to Europe. The high input costs, the prospects of low or weak prices mean the farmers actually are worried. They are not going to put too much investment into farming. And if they don't do that, the likelihood that production in 2009, particularly for cereals, which are major food crops, to not increase beyond this year would mean that with utilization always increasing, as you know population always rises, we will have a situation that may not be as bad as a few months ago when we had the crisis, but it may begin to become another prelude to a further crisis in the months ahead," he says.

He says that's because current level of food stocks are very low.