Catherine Chazaly, who has just returned from an assessment mission in Mali and Burkina Faso, said that the situation in Mali was very unclear but potentially a crisis in the making.
'Much of Mali's harvest failed last year and parts of the country were hit by locusts which ate some of the surviving crops. The next harvest is not due until November and food is running out now.
The pattern of hunger is not consistent; it varies from place to place. However, taken as a whole, it is clear there is a problem and most people have been hit one way or another. Some have lost up to 90 per cent of their crop.
But no one yet knows the full extent of the problem.
While it is estimated that as many as 1.1 million people are in need of some level of food aid, it is far from clear what their precise level of need is.'
Ms Chazaly said that no detailed country-wide assessment had been done and that only six UN World Food Programme staff were in the country and they were not focussing on the short-term food crisis.
She said there were few people in Mali with the expertise to do a proper assessment of the nutritional needs of the population nor with the expertise to launch a full emergency response.
'The situation is made more complicated by the fact that it is very hard to identify those who one would expect to be in greatest need -- young children, lactating and pregnant women and the elderly.
Many are working in the fields during the day because the men, who would normally do this work, have left to find work to provide for their hungry families.'
Ms Chazaly said that it was hard to assess women in need because they were away from their villages during the day working -- often with their children.
'You might expect that many would gather at local clinics -- where there are nutrition centres and people can be assessed -- but the clinics have no medicine and when they do it's too costly for most families. Another deterrent is the fact they are so hard to get to for people living in remote rural areas.'
Ms Chazaly said that there was a danger that the hidden problem could be bigger than predicted and that in a few weeks, the food crisis could worsen.
'It is not certain, but there is a possibility that Mali could face problems on a similar scale to Niger.'