MILAN (Reuters) - World food prices are expected to ease in April after three months of rises due to falls in some grain prices, but inflation worries are still simmering as soybean and rice prices climb - fanning fears of hunger and social unrest in poor countries.
Record high food prices in February 2011 contributed to protests connected to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa last year.
Last week, the World Bank said costlier oil, strong demand from Asia and bad weather had been pushing global food prices up, adding that if current production forecasts for 2012/2013 do not materialize, prices could reach higher levels.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will update its monthly Food Price Index on Thursday. The index is expected to break recent rises with falls in corn, wheat and some other food commodities seen offsetting soaring soy prices.
The FAO index - which measures price changes for a basket of cereals, oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar - rose in the first three months of 2012. The agency has said prices could rise more in first half of 2012 as grain supply tightens and energy prices stay high.
U.S. soybean futures, one of the major drivers on international grain markets in the past few months, climbed steadily in April to hit a nearly four-year high on Monday fuelled by continuous purchases by China, the world's largest buyer of soy.
"For the (FAO) index, the conditions associated with oilseeds especially have been supportive," Rabobank senior commodity analyst Keith Flury said.
However, U.S. corn and wheat futures eased in April in volatile trade affected by crop weather factors, tipping the scales towards a dip in the FAO index, traders said. Benchmark front-month ICE sugar futures also fell last month.
On the physical markets, whose prices FAO uses to calculate its food index, the average monthly price of U.S. soybeans jumped to $551.51 a tonne in April from $522.91 a tonne in March, the FAO's database showed.
Rice gained to $569.00 a tonne in April from $567.25 in March, while U.S. corn eased 0.3 percent to $273.12 a tonne and wheat fell 5.6 percent to $279.50 a tonne, the database showed.
Crude oil prices, which slipped in April after three consecutive monthly gains, remained high, adding to costs of food and inputs transportation, production of fertilizers and farm machinery use.
The FAO is also due to publish its Food Outlook on Thursday.
(Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova; additional reporting by Veronica Brown; editing by Keiron Henderson)