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By Silvia Aloisi
ROME (Reuters) - A U.N. world food summit next week is not likely to make more than token headway in the fight against hunger, with leaders merely pledging to boost aid to poor countries but setting no targets or deadlines for action.
With more than one billion people going hungry, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation had called the November 16-18 summit in Rome hoping to win a clear pledge by world leaders to spend $44 billion (26.5 billion pounds) a year to help poor nations feed themselves.
But a final draft declaration seen by Reuters includes only a general commitment to pump more money into agricultural development, and makes no mention of a proposal to eliminate hunger by 2025.
"We commit to take action towards sustainably eradicating hunger at the earliest possible date," said the draft of the declaration, to be adopted on the first day of the Rome summit barring last-minute amendments.
Aid groups said the summit, which few if any G8 leaders are expected to attend, already looked like a missed opportunity.
"The declaration is just a rehash of old platitudes," said Francisco Sarmento, ActionAid's food rights coordinator.
Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on food, said the text ignored the issue of speculation in commodity markets and the impact of biofuels on available arable land.
"I'm convinced that the question is not whether there may be a future significant increase in food prices, but when," he told a news conference in Brussels. "The risk is still there for another round of speculation to fuel food prices inflation."
France said the draft needed improving and vowed to push for firmer pledges on finance and agricultural market regulation.
Food shortages and malnutrition have risen up the political agenda since a spike in food prices last year sparked riots in around 60 countries and widespread hoarding. The food scare also prompted richer food importers like Saudi Arabia to snap up farmland in developing agricultural countries.
A G8 summit in July pledged $20 billion over three years to help farmers in poor nations, in a major policy shift away from emergency food rations and towards longer term strategies.
FAO had hoped to keep the momentum going and that leaders would commit to raising the percentage of official aid spent on agriculture to 17 percent -- back to the 1980 level -- from 5 percent now. That would amount to roughly $44 billion annually.
PRIVATE SECTOR IN FOCUS
As governments dither, some major food companies are investing in farming in poor countries to ensure the long-term viability of their own supplies and to keep a lid on costs.
Seeking to drum up private sector support, FAO brought together leading food and agribusiness companies, including Nestle, Unilever and Cargill, for a two-day meeting on Thursday.
"We are working every day to maximise capacity of our supply chain, to get high quality supplies at affordable prices," said Guido Barilla, head of the world's biggest pasta maker.
Since last year's record levels, the prices of staple commodities like rice, corn and wheat have fallen. But in developing countries they are still high and according to several experts further rises are all but inevitable.
The number of hungry people this year rose to 1.02 billion, more than at any other time, and up 100 million from 2008.
A child dies of malnutrition every six seconds. But the world produces enough food for everybody -- 2009 cereals crops are expected to be the second largest ever, after a record 2008.
"This scourge is not just a moral outrage and economic absurdity, but also represents a threat for our peace and security," FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said this week.
"Hungry people are a serious potential source of conflict and forced migration," Diouf, who is Senegalese, told reporters.
Previous food summits have been long on rhetoric and short on action. Past promises have gone largely unfulfilled.
In 2000, world leaders subscribed to the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015, and next week's summit will reaffirm commitment to that target -- even though it is unlikely to be met anytime soon.
But Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food agencies in Rome, said those writing off the summit were wrong.
"For the first time, instead of setting wishful goals, we acknowledge that there is a goal that exists and affirm a plan to reaching that existing goal," she told Reuters.
FAO has not released a list of participants, but even its most optimistic estimates indicate than less than one third of the 193 heads of state and government invited will attend.
Crucially, most G8 leaders or even top government officials will skip the summit, although there will be several heads of state from Latin America and Africa.
(Additional reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova in Milan and Bate Felix in Brussels; Editing by Jon Hemming)