By Jonathon Burch
KABUL, April 14 (Reuters) - Impoverished Afghans struggling with rising wheat prices are not expected to get any relief soon with no sign prices are going to come down, a United Nations official said on Monday.
Top finance and development officials from around the world called in Washington on Sunday for urgent action to stem rising food prices, warning that social unrest will spread unless the cost of basic staples is contained.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries with half its 25 million people living below the poverty line.
Wheat prices in Afghanistan have risen by an average of 60 percent over the last year with certain areas seeing a rise of up to 80 percent, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said.
"Very few people, I think, would believe that the factors ... that pushed the price of wheat up to record highs in the early part of this year are going to disappear," Rick Corsino, director for the WFP in Afghanistan, told a news conference.
"No one believes, for example, that we’re going to go back to price levels that we saw 12 months or 18 months ago," he said.
"What this means, of course, is that those people that are most affected by the higher prices are unlikely to get too much relief."
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said early this year wheat imports had become too expensive for Afghanistan after grain prices rallied on international markets last year.
The FAO estimated Afghanistan’s total wheat import needs in 2007/08 at 550,000 tonnes, including 100,000 tonnes of food aid.
The FAO said it has tentatively estimated Afghanistan’s total output of cereals in 2007 at more than 4.6 million tonnes — above average and well above the relatively poor harvest of 2006 when it came in at 3.9 million tonnes.
But Corsino said there was concern this year’s wheat harvest might not be as good as last year’s after low snowfall and light rain early in the year.
At Sunday’s meeting in Washington, World Bank President Robert Zoellick said the world was facing a stark reality.
"We have to put our money where our mouth is now, so that we can put food into hungry mouths. It is as stark as that," Zoellick said at the end of a meeting of the IMF and World Bank’s Development Committee.
Zoellick and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have said the issue of skyrocketing food prices needs to be front and centre at the highest political levels.
Anger over high food prices has led to rioting in Haiti. There have also been protests in Cameroon, Niger and Burkina Faso in Africa, and in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Corsino, asked if higher wheat prices would provide an incentive for farmers to switch from growing opium to wheat, said the profit from opium was still much higher than that from wheat.
"The problem as I see it, is that the incentive for those engaged in poppy have been so much higher than those engaged in wheat that there would have to be quite a long way to go to bridge that gap," he said.
Afghanistan is the world’s biggest producer of opium, the raw material for heroin. (Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)