By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, Sept 3 (Reuters) - There is no end in sight to global food shortages and multiple crises from climate change and energy and water scarcity will soon intensify what is already a silent famine, the World Bank said on Wednesday.
"There may be a slight dip, but we're going to see sustained high food prices for the foreseeable future," Katherine Sierra, the Bank's Vice President for Sustainable Development told Reuters in an interview.
"What we're seeing right now is a kind of quiet famine, people that have really had to reduce their food consumption quite considerably, a 100 million people moving back into poverty in Africa," Sierra said on the sidelines of an agriculture and climate change conference in Australia.
Many nations are braced for further instability after food riots in 37 countries and international rice prices soaring from around $400 to $1,000 a tonne. On Wednesday benchmark Thai rice was at $720. Growers such as Cambodia, Vietnam, India and China are cutting exports to keep rice at home.
Global food prices, based on United Nations records, rose 35 percent in the year to the end of January, accelerating an upturn that began in 2002. Since then, prices have risen 65 percent. Wheat prices peaked in March at $454 a tonne, more than doubling between mid-2007 and March this year.
Sierra, in a conference speech, said governments around the world had failed to properly invest in agricultural research, and step-up production of new types of food in time to meet demand.
With the world's population climbing towards 9 billion by 2050, demand for food is forecast to rise 110 per cent over the same period. At the same time, global warming is cutting into the supply of fresh water available to grow crops.
While many Europeans were opposed to genetically-modified (GM) crop types, Sierra said many showed promise in alleviating food shortages when "climate-ready" crops were critical.
Australia, experiencing its worst drought in 117 years, had expertise in improving crop yields in the face of climate change and water shortages, Sierra said.
Australia's Agriculture Minister Tony Burke told the conference GM food crops would be needed on a massive scale to help address global food shortages, saying biofuels cutting into food crop availability were not to blame.
"I don't believe we should be turning our back on any part of science. It would be a mistake for anyone to think that a reversal of those biofuels policies will get us out of the challenge that we face with global food shortages," Burke said.
Sierra said research must focus on hardier crops tolerant to drought, heat and salinity, as well as the range of cereals to include roots, tubers and grain legumes like peas, lentils and soyabeans, many of which do not need industrial fertilisers.
More effective plant breeding would also help, while the food potential of tropical fruits and even medicinal herbs had not been properly explored, she said.
(Editing by David Fox)