Leaders from European Union member countries and Latin America have promised to combat soaring food prices, poverty and climate change during a summit in Lima, Peru’s capital.

In a declaration issued at the close of Friday’s talks, representatives from nearly 60 countries promised to act with urgency to address the rising cost of staple foods”We agree that immediate measures are needed to assist the most vulnerable countries and populations affected by high food prices,” the statement said.

The declaration said that rural farming should be supported in order “to meet a growing demand” for food.

The summit’s host, Alain Garcia, Peru’s president, told delegates at Friday’s talks that hundreds of millions of people could go hungry due to steep rises in food prices.

He said that every country should aim to increase food production by two per cent to meet rising demand.

Free trade

The final declaration said that free trade and co-operation on the production of biofuels should be encouraged.

But Bolivia and Ecuador spoke out against plans for a trade association between Andean nations and the EU, saying that fair trade should be encouraged rather than unrestricted free trade.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, had earlier accused Peru and Colombia of trying to exclude his nation from talks between the EU and Andean countries.

Morales, himself a former coca grower, fears free trade deals could hurt poor farmers in his country.

“We want trade, but fair trade,” he said.

Brazil’s leader defended his country’s export of biofuels, in which corn and sugarcane crops have been diverted to produce ethanol.

“Obviously, the oil industry is behind” criticism of alternative fuels, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said.

The EU and Brazil, the world’s largest ethanol exporter, say biofuels can help curb reliance on oil and reduce greenhouse gases.

But many Latin American leaders, including Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president, and Garcia say that biofuels are forcing up prices for corn, rice and wheat in the region and could push millions of people into deeper poverty.

Friday’s gathering was not all serious sermons, however.

Chavez apology

Chavez apologised to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor after he accused her of being from “the same movement that supported Hitler”.

She had previously urged Latin American countries to distance themselves from Chavez.

Chavez said he shook Merkel’s hand, gave her a kiss and told her he was sorry if he had been harsh.

The previous day, Chavez had criticised Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, over the hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Hostage issue

Chavez said it “will be very difficult” to secure the release of hostages being held by the Farc while Uribe is in power.

Uribe has accused Chavez of providing aid to the Farc.

On Thursday, Interpol, the global police agency, vouched for the authenticity of documents on laptop computers found in a raid on a Farc base in Ecuador, pointing to ties between Chavez and the Farc.

Chavez dismissed Interpol’s findings as “ridiculous”.