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World Food Prices Rise to Near-Record High as Inflation Speeds Up, UN Says

World food prices rose to near a record in April as grain costs advanced, adding pressure to inflation that is accelerating from Beijing to Brasilia and spurring central banks to raise interest rates.

An index of 55 commodities rose to 232.1 points from 231 points in March, the United Nations’ Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report on its website today. The gauge climbed to an all-time high of 237.2 in February before dropping 2.6 percent in March.

The cost of living in the U.S. rose at its fastest pace since December 2009 in the 12 months ended in March, the same month in which Chinese consumer prices rose by the most since 2008. The European Central Bank raised interest rates on April 7, joining China, India, Poland and Sweden in a bid to control inflation partly blamed on food costs. Costlier food also contributed to riots across northern Africa and the Middle East that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia this year.

“There seems to be some easing for a lot of commodities, but whether this is demand rationing, we have to wait and see,” Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist at the FAO, said before the report. “If the weather is good, if plantings expand, I think we could see some relief in food prices.”

Sugar prices slumped 18 percent in New York last month, while milk futures fell 1.8 percent in Chicago, U.S. wholesale beef prices dropped 3.4 percent and pork declined 2.2 percent. Wheat prices rose 5 percent in Chicago after falling the previous two months and corn jumped 9.1 percent.

Corn Planting

Corn has almost doubled in the past 12 months on speculation that more planting in the U.S., the world’s largest grower, won’t be sufficient to rebuild global stocks. Wheat surged 57 percent over the same period and soybeans gained 39 percent as flooding ruined crops in Canada and Australia and drought reduced harvests in Russia and Europe.

Of the grains, corn “is the most worrisome,” Abbassian said in a statement. “We would need above-average, if not record, yields in the U.S.,” however, “plantings so far have been delayed considerably due to cool and wet conditions on the ground,” he said.

The FAO’s gauge of grain prices, which account for 27 percent of the overall index, jumped to its highest level since June 2008, advancing to 265.1 points in April from 251.2 the previous month.

Dry Weather

World grain stocks will probably slide for a second year in the 12 months through June 2012 as corn consumption outpaces production and dry weather hurts wheat prospects in the U.S. and the European Union, the International Grains Council said in a report April 20.

“With demand continuing strongly, prospects for a return to more normal prices hinge largely on how much production will increase and how much grain reserves are replenished in the new season,” David Hallam, the director of FAO’s Trade and Market division, said in a statement.

The FAO’s food-price index fell for eight months in a row after reaching its previous peak in June 2008, a situation that probably won’t be repeated this year, Concepcion Calpe, an economist at the UN agency, said last month. “Very strong” demand for food, feed and biofuel may mean prices will climb in coming months, she said.

Meat Prices

The index of meat prices, which make up 35 percent of the overall index, was little changed at 172.8, up 0.5 percentage point from the March level.

The FAO index of sugar prices fell to 347.8 points, the lowest level in seven months, from 372.3 in March. Cooking-oil prices slipped to 259.1 points in April from 259.9, while the dairy index fell to 228.7 from 234.4 in March.

Food output will have to climb by 70 percent from 2010 to 2050 as the world population swells to 9 billion and rising incomes boost meat and dairy consumption, the FAO forecasts. Producing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of pork can take 3.5 kilograms of feed, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows.

About 44 million people have been pushed into poverty since June by the “dangerous levels” of food prices, World Bank President Robert Zoellick said in February. Another 10 million may join them should the UN food index rise another 10 percent, the World Bank said April 16. The number of hungry people in the world globally declined last year to 925 million from more than 1 billion in 2009, according to the FAO.

“A sliding dollar and increased oil prices are contributing to high food-commodity prices,” Hallam said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rudy Ruitenberg in Paris at rruitenberg@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Claudia Carpenter at ccarpenter2@bloomberg.net

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