*Vulnerable importers want formal WTO exemption
*Proposal part of Doha trade discussions
By Andrew Callus
GENEVA, April 5 (Reuters) - Poorer countries vulnerable to soaring food prices demanded on Tuesday formal exemption under world trade rules from the export restrictions that have proliferated in recent years.
In a proposal linked to the long-running Doha round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks, the group of net food-importing developing countries (NFDICs) said 21 food exporters were operating export restrictions last year -- a higher number than the official WTO record of four.
They said the curbs were contributing to painfully high food prices.
According to a source in the closed-door meeting, the group proposed new rules that would ensure the restrictions, often imposed to ensure supplies in home markets, did not apply to NFDICs or to least-developed countries (LDCs).
The plan, put forward by Egypt, said such bans should also be waived for any country receiving humanitarian food aid.
The group cited World Bank figures showing a 15 percent rise in food prices between October 2010 and January 2011 to a level 29 percent higher than a year ago and only 3 percent below their 2008 peak.
The World Bank said in February that food prices had reached "dangerous levels" and had pushed 44 million people into extreme poverty since June 2010. [ID:nN15176028]
The price spike has fuelled protests across the world, including in the Middle East and Africa.
The NFDIC countries are Barbados, Botswana, Ivory Coast, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Honduras, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Mauritius, Mongolia, Morocco, Namibia, Pakistan, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia and Venezuela.
Grenada, Maldives and Swaziland are due to join the group.
The proposal was made at the start of two weeks of agriculture talks, which feed into the Doha round of WTO discussions aiming to produce a deal by the end of 2011.
Other speakers in the meeting broadly sympathised with the group's situation, according to the source, but said they would have to study the proposal carefully.
Australia, Brazil, the Philippines and the United States said other issues should also be taken into account. They also blamed distorting subsidies and import barriers for price volatility. Japan, Switzerland and the EU were also sympathetic, and said the WTO had to act. (Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Jeffrey Heller)