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G8 agriculture ministers work on global food strategy

Agriculture ministers from the world's richest nations have been trying to hammer out a set of proposals aimed at promoting global food security and reducing trade barriers.

A man carries potatoes at a central food market in Villa Nueva, Guatemala

G8 agriculture ministers want to stabilize world food prices

Delegates representing the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised economies -- the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia -- are due to present their proposals in a final declaration when their three-day meeting in northern Italy draws to a close on Monday.

Officials said that by Sunday afternoon, the ministers had reached consensus on about two-thirds of the 13 points they wish to convey to their heads of government at the G8 summit in Sardinia in July.

Alarming data

Hungry children in Haiti holding an empty bowl

The UN estimates one billion people live in hunger

According to draft copies of the final declaration obtained by the German Press Agency dpa and Reuters news agency, the ministers acknowledged past failures in the fight against world hunger.

"The Millennium Declaration aimed to halve the proportion of the world population facing poverty and undernourishment by the year 2015," the draft declaration said.

"We are very far from reaching this goal," the document said, referring to "alarming data" from the United Nations, which estimates that one billion people are currently living in poverty and hunger.

The draft stated that the volatility of agricultural commodity prices, which rose sharply in 2008 only to fall again amid the global economic downturn, exacerbated the problem of hunger and threatened farmers' incomes.

"Structural factors may underpin prices over the medium term and increased volatility and demand raise important questions about food security for the future," it said.

Grain stocks?

The draft document stressed the need to increase food production, but it offered no clear instructions on how to do so, other than to "underline the importance of increased public and private investment in sustainable agriculture, rural development and environmental protection."

While the draft mentioned the need to examine "food stocks" as a tool to help reduce market volatility, it was unclear how the concept would be addressed in the future.

A Pakistani laborer sieves wheat at harvest time

France and Italy say grain reserves would curb speculation on food markets

French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier told reporters he would push for a global system for stockpiling essential foodstuffs.

Barnier said the world needed supply management systems similar to those that operate across the European Union, with reserves that "fight against speculators preying on primary foodstuffs, which is scandalous."

But the US and some of the other countries have warned against such a reserve system, arguing it is not an ideal policy tool for stabilizing prices.

Quantity vs quality

While Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia said talks aimed at reducing trade barriers took place in a "good climate", he admitted that further "compromise" was needed to smooth over differences.

Zaia hinted that the custom and import duties on agricultural products, as well as "quality standards," remained a sticking point between the G8 nations and those representing the G5 emerging economies -- China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa -- which joined an extended session of the talks on Saturday evening.

Close-up of Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia at G8 talks

Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia says G8 talks on food security are moving forward

These poorer nations have frequently accused richer countries of using "standards" to shield their home markets from cheaper, imported foodstuffs.

However, on Sunday, Zaia reiterated his view that while food security consists of producing a sufficient quantity of foodstuffs to feed people, the other component, quality, must be protected by standards that prevent the sale of products that threaten people's health.

Zaia said although a single final declaration would "ideally" incorporate the views of the G8, the G5, and other important agricultural exporters such as Australia, Egypt and Argentina, his priority was to reach an agreement within the G8 framework.

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