Global food prices have hit “dangerous levels” that could contribute to further political instability by pushing millions more people into poverty, the World Bank warned in a report released on Tuesday.
It found that global food prices had jumped 29 per cent in the past year and are just 3 per cent below the all-time peak hit in 2008.
The US-based institution estimates that higher prices for maize, wheat and oil have pushed 44 million people into extreme poverty since last June.
Bank president Robert Zoellick noted that the rising prices have hit people hardest in the developing world because they spend as much as half their income on food.
“Food prices are the key and major challenge facing many developing countries today,” Mr Zoellick said.
The World Bank’s food price index rose by 15 per cent between October and January alone.
The increase has been driven by financiers speculating on wheat, maize and soybeans.
Global maize futures have more than doubled since last summer, from $3.50 (£2.18) to $7 (£4.36) a bushel – in part because of higher demand from developing countries and a growing biofuels industry.
The global price of fats and oils rose 22 per cent and wheat rose 20 per cent between October and January, according to the World Bank.
The price of sugar rose by 20 per cent in that time.
Rich states are relatively insulated from the price increases because raw ingredients account for just a fraction of the total food costs.
But in many developing countries prices get transmitted more drastically.