ROME It has been described as a global crisis pushing 100 million people into hunger, threatening to stoke social and political turmoil and set the fight against world poverty back by seven years.
Now, the food price crisis will be tackled by world leaders who meet in Rome next week to seek ways of reducing the suffering for the world's poorest people and ensure the Earth can produce more food to sustain an ever growing population.
"It's time for action," said Jacques Diouf, the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) who called the summit late last year before the full extent of the food price crisis was clear.
World Bank President Robert Zoellick underlined the urgency of the problem, announcing $1.2 billion in loans and grant financing for countries struggling with food and fuel costs.
"It is crucial that we focus on specific action," he said. "This is not an issue like HIV/AIDS where you need some research breakthrough. People know what to do."
A combination of factors, including poor harvests, low stocks and rising demand, have collided over the last one to two years to cause massive, sudden rises in many food commodity prices which very few people saw coming.
Food prices will remain high over the next decade even if they fall from current records, the FAO said in a report.
Diouf said he expected some 40 heads of state or government at the meeting on Tuesday to Thursday next week.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has set up his own task force, will attend, as will the leaders of France, Spain, Japan, Brazil, Argentina and some African nations.
Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also expected for his first trip to Western Europe as president and first major appearance in the West since addressing the U.N. in New York last year.
Delegates from 151 countries can be expected to make worthy statements on beating poverty, but the talks may reveal divisions on several underlying food and hunger-related issues: free trade, biofuels and genetically modified organisms.
"World problems are much more complex than saying something is bad and something is good," Diouf told Reuters when asked whether he expected the summit to criticize the rise of bio-fuels -- usually energy made from foodstuffs -- in the United States and Europe for contributing to food price spikes.
"What is sure is that diverting around 100 million tonnes of cereals to biofuel has had an impact on food prices," he added.
Diouf has said he wants to get emergency aid to those worst affected, seeds and fertilizers to farmers who can no longer afford them and plough investment into agriculture to ensure poor countries can feed themselves in the future.
Josette Sheeran, head of another Rome-based food agency, the World Food Program, had to appeal for an extra $755 million to cover the additional cost of food aid caused by the price hikes.
With that shortfall now covered by donor countries, Sheeran said the crisis should be seen as "a wake up call to act now to defeat the plague of hunger once and for all".
Future rules on trade in agricultural products are seen as a key part of a long-term strategy to reduce poverty and hunger.
Developing countries have long complained about heavily subsidized food from Europe and North America being dumped on their markets, damaging their own farmers.
The summit's timing, as the "Doha" world trade talks approach a critical phase, will ensure trade is a hot topic in Rome and the summit may serve to remind trade negotiators of what is at stake in the so-called "development round".
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)