by Josephine McKenna
The impact of spiraling food prices on the world's poorest topped the agenda when ministers from 20 countries gathered in Rome for the United Nations' World Food Day on Tuesday.
The meeting was held at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to discuss major issues including the impact of serious droughts in Australia and the United States and a fall in harvests in Europe which have lifted the cost of food in many countries.
French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll chaired the meeting which reviewed measures to address food price volatility and reduce its impact on the world's most vulnerable.
FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva said both food prices and volatility had increased in recent years and was expected to continue in the medium term.
"In this context, it is important to improve governance of food security," he said. "In the globalized world we live in, it's not possible to have food security in one country alone."
Graziano da Silva urged nations to increase efforts to achieve the Millenium Development Goal (MDG) of cutting the number of people suffering from hunger by half its 1990 level by 2015.
The FAO estimates that 870 million people are hungry in the world today, 132 million fewer than in 1990.
However, these numbers do not give a complete picture of the progress made in combating hunger as they do not take account of the growth in the world's population over the last two decades.
Progress looks more impressive when the number of hungry people is considered in relation to the overall global population.
Yet global food prices rose by 1.4 percent last month, after holding steady for two months, as cereals, meat and dairy prices climbed, the FAO said.
For poor countries, the cost of food is estimated to have risen by 3.7 percent to 28.1 billion euros (36.7 billion U.S. dollars) since last year.
The FAO also estimates that an "unacceptably high" 870 million people in the world -- or one in eight people -- suffer from hunger even though the figure has dropped from more than a billion in the early 1990s.
However, the UN's special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said that figure rises to 1.5 billion people if you include the kind of malnourishment which hinders children's physical and psychological development.
Still the FAO chief said there were positive signs, citing reform of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the creation of a high-level task force on global food security and a G20 decision to establish the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) to improve coordination and market transparency.
"This allowed us to react quickly to the price rise we saw in July 2012, preventing panic, avoiding unilateral actions and further spikes in those initial tense days," Graziano da Silva declared.
"We are still in a complex situation but we are handling it successfully," he said.
Ministers from Brazil, Egypt, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Japan, Lebanon, Mozambique, Sri Lanka and the United Republic of Tanzania took part in the Rome talks.
Their discussions focused on how to increase transparency in agricultural markets, measures to handle the increasing demand for food and ways to limit excessive food price volatility.
The theme of World Food Day, which was observed in 150 countries, was "agricultural cooperatives" and there is a strong impetus to expand them in the future.
Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund on Agricultural Development (IFAD), told the ceremony that the fund works closely with cooperatives worldwide.
"From tea growers in Rwanda to livestock resource centers in Nepal, there are many examples of how cooperatives better support smallholder farmers to not only organize themselves, but to collectively increase their opportunities and resources," he said.
"Our experience at IFAD working with farmers has proven time and time again that cooperatives are critical to reach these objectives," he said. "This is why we place a lot of emphasis on cooperatives and continue to enhance our work with them."
The recently appointed head of the World Food Program (WFP) Ertharin Cousin spoke about the need for social safety nets.
"In our world, too many still struggle to find their next meal. Social protection and safety net programs enable the most vulnerable, particularly women and children, to lift themselves out of hunger and poverty," she said. "These programs provide a cushion that is otherwise unavailable."
The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 (SOFI) was published this month by the FAO, IFAD and WFP. It presents detailed estimates of chronic malnourishment based on an improved methodology and data for the last two decades.