By Catherine Hornby
ROME (Reuters) - Four million Syrians, a fifth of the population, are unable to produce or buy enough food, and farmers are short of the seed and fertilizers they need to plant their next crop, the United Nations said on Friday.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) said Syria's domestic wheat production over the next 12 months is likely to be severely compromised and that it will need to import 1.5 million metric tons of wheat for the 2013/14 season.
"There is a limited window of opportunity to ensure crisis-affected families do not lose vital sources of food and income," the two agencies said.
After more than two years of civil war that has killed more than 90,000 people, food shortages have escalated due to massive population displacement, disruption of agricultural production, unemployment, economic sanctions and high food and fuel prices.
FAO has launched an appeal for $41.7 million to assist 768,000 people and has so far received $3.3 million.
The two agencies said the funding must be secured by August to provide farmers with fertilizers and seeds to plant in October. Otherwise, the report said, many farmers will be unable to harvest wheat until mid-2015.
Syria's livestock sector has also been seriously depleted by the conflict, with poultry production down by more than 50 percent compared with 2011 and significant declines in numbers of sheep and cattle, the report found.
The agencies said domestic wheat output was seen at about 2.4 million metric tons in 2012/13, some 40 percent less than the average annual harvest of more than 4 million metric tons before the conflict.
WFP said last month that Syrian families were increasingly resorting to begging for food to cope with shortages and high prices.
The average monthly price of wheat flour has more than doubled between May 2011 and May 2013 in several areas, and there are serious bread shortages across the country.
Food production has been hampered by high costs, damage to machinery and storage facilities and by the fact that many farmers have fled their land for fear of violence, the report found.
Meanwhile, the conflict appeared likely to continue into a third year as the fractious opposition, trying to hold on to swathes of territory across Syria, struggled to unite.
FAO and WFP also warned of a serious risk that livestock diseases could be transmitted to neighboring countries and said farmers needed vaccines to prevent this from happening.
A Syrian state buyer earlier this week issued a tender to buy 200,000 metric tons of flour on the international market and planned to pay with funds from bank accounts frozen by trade sanctions.
Food is excluded from U.S. and European trade sanctions imposed on President Bashar al-Assad's government.
(Reporting By Catherine Hornby; editing by Veronica Brown and Jane Baird)