West African agricultural and trade ministers are holding emergency talks in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, to plot strategies for a regional solution to the rising food prices. The Economic Community of West African States says soaring food prices are a major threat to economic growth and stability in the sub-region. From Abuja, Gilbert da Costa has more in this report for VOA.

Experts say sustained high food prices could be extremely damaging to the fragile economies of the 15-member bloc. Thousands have taken to the streets across West Africa to protest the skyrocketing price of staples in one of the world's poorest and most volatile regions.

Nigeria Finance Minister Shamsudeen Usman urged participants to adopt emergency measures to halt a slide into chaos and anarchy.

"The crisis has fueled social unrest, even rioting in some member countries thus undermining peace and stability, which are pre-requisites to growth," Usman said. "The crisis, which is a source of concern to us, requires that we seek regional solutions to the emergency situation. In the meantime, we have to prepare an emergency solution to provide food for our teeming populations, while developing a medium and long-term solution to the inadequate food self-sufficiency."

ECOWAS experts estimate that more than $11 billion will be needed to address food shortages in the region.

Only Nigeria and Ivory Coast produce and export oil in West Africa, and the persistent rise in oil prices could have grave consequences for most of the region's impoverished countries.

ECOWAS President Mohammed Ibn Chambas says the fact that some West African countries have banned food exports, even within the region, is also a factor in the current food crisis.

"It is important to know that faced with this critical food situation, some member states had to impose temporary ban on food exports, thus further threatening the market stability of foodstuffs in the region," he said. "Clearly there is a compelling need, and indeed by the very tenets of our community vision, there is a need to complement the national response with a comprehensive regional response."

The United Nations says about 33 million young children across sub-Saharan Africa face starvation and malnourishment.

ECOWAS says gross domestic product in West Africa is expected to reach a record $230 billion in 2008, with growth rates above five percent.

Experts say all that could be wiped away if the current food crisis is not tackled. Representatives of eight international organizations involved in agricultural development and water resources management are attending the one-day meeting.