* Obama to announce new public/private effort
* Global food prices remain high, volatile
* Focus will be on some 30 countries
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, May 18 (Reuters) - Buffeted by the euro zone crisis and distracted by political problems at home, the leaders of the world's industrial powers are turning to the private sector to help fight hunger and malnutrition for up to a billion people beset by shortages, droughts and rising food prices.
U.S. President Barack Obama will announce a new public-private partnership program on Friday, s eeking to spur this weekend's summit of the wealthy Group of Eight to focus on market methods to boost production, particularly among hardscrabble small-scale farmers in Africa who may hold the key to improved world food supplies.
This year's meeting of the G8 - the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia - will focus on the economic headaches plaguing the world's richest countries, including worries over Greece, the future of the euro zone and proposals to tap emergency oil reserves to offset diminishing exports from sanctions-hit Iran.
But U.S. officials say the Obama administration also wants the G8 to take fresh steps to improve global food security, building on its 2009 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, which sought to mobilize $20 billion over three years to boost agricultural investments in poor countries.
Global food prices soared in 2008, which led to increased hunger, malnutrition and social unrest, highlighting the years of underinvestment in agriculture in developing countries.
They have remained high and volatile since, rising by 40 percent between June and December 2010 alone, while maize and wheat prices doubled during that period, raising the food bills of the world's poor countries.
Obama, who has made improving global food supplies a keystone of U.S. overseas development policy, is expected to announce a new initiative to improve nutrition for 50 million vulnerable people, primarily in Africa, over the next decade.
He will also announce a new partnership of agribusiness giants such as DuPont, Monsanto and Cargill , along with smaller companies including almost 20 from Africa, which will commit some $3 billion for projects to help farmers in the developing world build local markets and improve productivity.
The focus will be on some 30 countries, home to about 26 percent of the 1.4 billion extreme poor, that already have globally backed agricultural investment plans that need donor support. Among the countries are Bangladesh, Benin, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Uganda, Tajikistan and Ethiopia.
WOMEN AS THE VANGUARD
With global food demand expected to grow by at least 70 percent by 2050 and with sub-Saharan Africa home to up to 60 percent of the world's unused arable land, aid experts say African farmers - particularly women - must be the vanguard of the next agricultural revolution.
"If we get the ball moving and we create a genuine agricultural revolution and transformation in sub-Saharan Africa, hundreds of millions of people will benefit," Rajiv Shah, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Reuters in an interview.
Shah said the new U.S.-backed partnership would seek to address some of the roadblocks slowing crop yields in Africa, which are now about one metric tonne per hectare, compared with 7 tonnes per hectare in many other parts of the world.
"A basic reality is that you've never seen agricultural transformation occur without active and direct engagement of the private sector, and that certainly will be true in sub-Saharan Africa," he said.
Among the initiatives slated to be unveiled on Friday, U.S. -based farm equipment maker Agco Corp will invest $100 million over the next three years to implement model farms and training centers aimed at improving productivity for 25,000 smallholder farmers ranging from Ethiopia to Mozambique.
Other partnership projects include seed product packs tailored to African farmers from Swiss agrochemicals giant Syngenta, improved telecommunications access from British telecoms firm Vodafone and a potential African site for a proposed $2 billion fertilizer production facility planned by Norway's Yara International.
Neil Watkins, policy director at the U.S. aid group ActionAid, said the new initiatives might improve the lot of African women farmers, who already produce as much as 90 percent of the food grown on the continent but often lack access to appropriate low-cost technology, rural credit or state-of-the-art inputs such as seeds and fertilizer.
But he said sustained commitment on the part of both traditional donors and private investors would be required - and voiced concern it may be difficult to link up the world's giant agribusiness companies with some of its poorest farm laborers.
"These marginal farmers aren't likely to be targets for corporate investment," Watkins said. "Corporate investment is not a silver bullet for food security in Africa."