FAO's quarterly forecast of agricultural production and food security gives an overall positive outlook for cereal production worldwide, but warns that several regions of the world are expected to struggle with the consequences of poor rainfall, severe weather, armed conflict and displacement.
The Crop Prospects and Food Situation report forecasts a record increase of 3.2 percent in world cereal production in 2012, totalling an estimated 2 419 million tonnes, mainly on the strength of a bumper maize crop in the United States. Wheat and coarse grains prices eased in May, mostly during the second half, driven by good supply prospects.
Despite the positive global trends, countries in the Sahel continue to face serious challenges to food security due to locally high food prices and civil strife, FAO warns. The Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen are also among the countries experiencing increasing levels of food insecurity.
"The situation in Yemen and Syria reminds us of the clear link between food security and peace. In this case, internal conflict is causing food insecurity. But, it works the other way around as well. Throughout the world we see crisis after crisis caused, in its entirety or in part, by the lack of food or disputes over natural resources, especially land and water," FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said.
The report also lists 35 countries in need of external food assistance, including Afghanistan, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Haiti, Iraq and Mali. Of the total, 28 countries are in Africa.
"This only goes to show, again, that hunger today is mainly a problem of access. Millions of poor families worldwide lack the means to produce their own food or decent jobs and income to buy the food they need," Graziano da Silva said.
Africa, Near East
West Africa continues to face "increasing food insecurity and malnutrition in several countries," due to a sharp drop in cereal and pasture production in 2011, combined with high local food prices and civil strife.
Escalating conflict in Mali, resulting displacement towards neighbouring countries, and Desert Locust outbreaks moving southward from North Africa are considered additional threats to 2012 agricultural production in the Sahel, especially in Niger, Mali and Chad, FAO said.
In Eastern Africa, the main season rains started late, shortening the crop growing period. Furthermore, floods affected areas in Kenya, Somalia, the United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda, while severe dry conditions persist in parts of northeastern and coastal districts in Kenya.
In North Africa, Morocco is expected to see sharp declines in production following "erratic and insufficient" rains, while the rest of the region is expected to produce above-average harvests.
Unfavourable weather conditions in 2012, including dry spells and cyclones, resulted in cereal production declines in parts of Southern Africa, while high food prices in Malawi worsen food insecurity.
In the Near East, the deteriorating food security situation was cited as a major concern in the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen as a result of the civil unrest. An estimated 1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria due to the impact of the continuing social unrest on households and food distribution channels in several markets.
In Yemen, about 5 million people are estimated to be severely food insecure and in need of emergency food assistance, as a result of high levels of poverty, prolonged conflict and high food and fuel prices.
Ukraine bread basket vulnerable
In the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Europe, FAO forecasts a six-percent decline in cereal production, to 148 million tonnes, against last year's level. This mainly reflects the unfavourable prospects in Ukraine, where adverse weather conditions during the winter cropping are taking its toll on grain crops. Wheat production is forecast at 14 million tonnes, nearly 40 percent below last year's bumper crop and well below the average of the past five years.
The significant drop in Ukraine, a major food producer in the region, is expected to have an impact on supplies and pricing in neighbouring countries.
In the CIS in Asia, wheat production in Kazakhstan, the major cereal producer in the sub-region, was put at 14.7 million tonnes, one-third below last year's record level.
Asia, Americas see gains
The FAO report forecasts a record increase of 3.2 percent in world cereal production in 2012, totalling an estimated 2 419 million tonnes, mainly on account of a bumper maize crop in the United States.
Record harvests and improved production were expected across much of Asia, North America, Central America and South America.
World cereal stocks for crop seasons ending in 2013 are forecast to increase to 548 million tonnes, up 7 percent from their opening levels and the highest since 2002. This outlook is 4 percent (or 23.5 million tonnes) higher than was reported last month, entirely due to an increase in the forecast for world coarse grain inventories which now stand at 201 million tonnes -- up 20 percent from the previous season's low of 167 million tonnes.
Globally, the FAO Food Price Index, which measures the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, dropped by 4 percent in May due to generally favourable supplies, growing world economic uncertainties, and a strengthening of the US dollar.