How much food is the world producing? What is happening to world food prices? Which countries have the highest number of hungry people? Will there be a drought in southern Africa this year? What are the food security implications of civil war, economic crisis or other man-made disasters? Where are food interventions most needed?

Questions like these have been answered by FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) since its inception in 1975. The system's goal is to provide policy-makers and policy analysts with the most up-to-date information available on all aspects of food supply and demand. In doing so, it releases regular bulletins on food production and markets at the global level and food situation and outlook reports on a regional and country-by-country basis. More than 100 governments, numerous trade and research groups, four regional organizations and over 60 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) use and contribute to the GIEWS information system.

GIEWS plays an essential role in warning of emerging food shortages. Using different tools, including specialized software and rapid assessment missions, GIEWS warns of imminent food crises.

Specialized software developed by GIEWS allows analysts to display satellite images of vegetation and cloud cover, to compare them with earlier years and create composite maps with data on geography, population and agriculture. This makes it possible to locate areas where crop growing conditions are unfavourable. It also links to a database containing a wealth of national and global crop statistics, population data and detailed crop calendars for planting and harvesting. On-the-ground assessments are also carried out. In collaboration with the World Food Programme, FAO sends out teams to assess food shortfalls in countries facing exceptional food emergencies, usually because of natural or war-related disasters.

By examining crops and interviewing farmers, FAO estimates a country's food import needs and the World Food Programme determines how much emergency food a country requires, as well as the logistics required to make sure people won't starve. This is critical information for the international community, aid organizations and policy-makers who have to mobilize food resources and relief assistance. Since the early 1990s, the number of rapid assessment missions has almost doubled, to more than 30 each year, reflecting a sharp increase in the number of disasters.

"Having an effective early warning system is no guarantee that interventions will follow," says FAO's Director General Jacques Diouf. "Food resources are not always mobilized in sufficient volume, or they arrive too late to save lives. War or civil strife often hamper logistics operations so much that relief programmes fail to reach the most needy. However, objective information and early warning continue to have a crucial role in ensuring that timely and appropriate action can be taken to avoid suffering."

GIEWS gets the word out through its distribution both over the Internet and in three main publications that are issued throughout the year: Food Outlook, Foodcrops and Shortages and Food Supply Situation and Crop Prospects in Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, special alerts and reports are published every year.