New FAO chief predicts volatile, high food prices for years; says UN agency on front lines

ROME – The incoming head of the U.N. food agency predicted high and volatile food prices for years to come Monday and said the U.N. should play a bigger role in trying to help countries deal with the impact.

Jose Graziano da Silva, a former food security minister of Brazil, was elected Sunday as director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. agency tasked with eliminating world hunger at a time of near-record high food prices.

At his first press conference Monday, Graziano said high commodity prices weren’t a temporary phenomenon but would remain high for several years since they are related to overall instability in world financial markets. Until those markets stabilize, he said, commodities will be hard hit.

“This is my view and I foresee we will still have problems, especially on those poor countries that need to import most of their food,” he said.

He praised as a good first step the recent agreement by G-20 agriculture ministers to calm markets by establishing a transparent system to track global food supplies and set up emergency food reserves.

But he said he thought FAO should do more to give policy assistance to countries to help them react when drought or other natural disasters hit.

FAO has begun holding seminars around the world to try to persuade producer countries to not take drastic measures such as export bans when production plummets. Such export restrictions have been blamed for the record high grain prices that fueled social unrest in 2007-2008.

In being elected director-general, Graziano beat former Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos in a close vote that illustrated the divisions of FAO’s member states along traditional north-south lines — industrialized donor countries by and large backed Moratinos while developing countries backed Graziano.

Graziano acknowledged the divisions Monday, but said he had already begun reaching out to donor countries like Germany and said he and the FAO needed the committed support of all member states to function effectively.

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