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G20 Farm Ministers Take Steps to Control Food Prices

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The world's top 20 economic powers agreed Thursday on measures aimed at controlling high and volatile food prices.

Farm ministers from the G20 group of leading and emerging economies met for the first time in Paris Wednesday and Thursday. Following nearly a year of difficult negotiations, French agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire described the agreement as a remarkable accomplishment.

"It was not just based on the questions of national interest of the countries concerned. It took into account the absolute necessity to fight against world hunger and to put an end to this scandal which is world hunger for hundreds of thousands of people," he said.

The agriculture ministers called for more regulation of financial markets. Many experts say an increase in speculation in these markets has contributed to dramatic price swings in recent years. But there were few details in the agreement. G20 finance ministers will likely have more to say about this.

Farm ministers also agreed to set up a new system to share information on global food stocks and usage. World Bank President Robert Zoellick says this is a lesson learned from the previous price spike three years ago.

"What we saw -- when prices started to surge in 2008 -- was that a lack of information about stocks, about availability, can lead to panic in markets. And panic is what leads to price spikes. So uncertainty feeds volatility," he said.

The Paris agreement includes plans for small, regional emergency food reserves to be managed by the UN World Food Program. And the ministers agreed to exempt food aid from export restrictions like those imposed by Russia and other countries last year following a major drought.

Experts say export restrictions aimed at protecting one nation's food security worsen global price spikes.

A new rapid response forum is to meet when crises occur that threaten food supplies. But there is no agreement to end export bans.

Shenggen Fan, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, says with high food prices creating global instability, it was important for the agriculture ministers to find common ground.

"They have achieved that common position. But I wanted to see more meat, more commitment, more concrete actions," Fan said.

Fan says for one thing, there was little concrete language about how to improve productivity of small farmers in the developing world, where hunger problems are greatest.

And the G20 ministers said little about the use of food crops to produce biofuels, which many experts say is a major contributor to high food prices.

"I would have rather seen some stronger language saying that we should curtail biofuel production by reducing or eliminating subsidies," Fan said.

The UN food price index has been hovering around record highs this year as bad weather has cut supplies of maize and wheat. Demand from a growing and increasingly affluent world population, as well as high energy costs and slowing global productivity gains are expected to keep prices relatively high for years to come.

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