World food prices reached a record high in January, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said Thursday.

The Rome-based FAO warned that prices are expected to keep rising and that inflation might create unrest in the hardest-hit countries.

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Girls line up for free food in Islamabad on Thursday. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned Thursday that global food prices are at a record high and expected to keep rising. ((B.K.Bangash/Associated Press))

"The new figures clearly show that the upward pressure on world food prices is not abating," FAO economist Abdolreza Abbassian said in a release.

"These high prices are likely to persist in the months to come," Abbassian said.

"High food prices are of major concern especially for low-income food deficit countries that may face problems in financing food imports and for poor households which spend a large share of their income on food."

World food prices, as measured by the FAO Food Price Index, rose for the seventh consecutive month by 3.4 per cent from December, to 231 points. The index measures monthly price changes in a basket of foods including cereals, oilseeds, dairy, meat and sugar

In December, the index reached its highest level in nominal terms since the FAO started tracking food prices in 1990. In January, they soared to their highest levels ever, even when adjusting for overall inflation over the last 20 years.

Food inflation is among the factors blamed for the turmoil in Egypt and the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The index tracked especially large increases in dairy products, cereal and food oil prices. Dairy products rose by 6.2 per cent, oils and fats by 5.6 per cent and cereals rose 3.0 per cent.

The countries most affected were China, India, Indonesia and Russia.

High prices sparked rioting in 61 countries in 2007 and 2008. Back then, the FAO index was at 200 points for all of 2008.

Wheat prices soar

Wheat prices, already at 2½-year highs, rose again on Wednesday, by 3.3 per cent, as traders speculated that a massive storm that barreled across much of the U.S. might have damaged the Great Plains crop.

"There is an increased idea of possible winter-kill," said Darin Newsom, an analyst with Telvent. "It certainly looks like the market is taking note of that."

Traders also are concerned about the quality and quantity of the global wheat supply, particularly after devastating floods damaged Australia's crop on top of last year's drought in Russia and Ukraine and flooding in Canada.

The release of the latest FAO data came less than a week after Oxfam CEO Barbara Stocking called for hunger to take top place on the agenda of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

"During the 2007 to 2008 food price crisis, 150 million people around the world became hungry, taking the total number in the world to over one billion," Stocking said.

"And, as always, the poorest and most vulnerable people suffered most."

Stocking called for a rapid increase in investment to support small-scale agricultural production plus finance so that countries can help people living in poverty cope with the immediate effects of high and volatile prices.

With files from The Associated Press