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The Earth Times/Food Summit

November 16-30, 1996



By Ashali Varma

Rome—In an age where technological advances have increased food productivity to meet the demands of more than 5 billion people on this planet, there is still hunger, there is still malnutrition and almost 11 million children under the age of five die as a direct or indirect result of hunger.  The World Food summit scheduled to take place in Rome November13-17, 1996, is a call for world leaders to commit to a Plan of Action that will address the issues of hunger and malnutrition.

The Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, said, “In an age when we explore the stars, down on Earth 800 million people are chronically undernourished in the Third World alone, although the world produces enough food for everyone.

The Summit has been organized by FAO, which was founded in 1945 and is headquartered in Rome.  With more than 2,000 professional staff and a biennial budget of $650 million.  FAO has a mandate to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living, to improve agricultural productivity , and to better the condition of rural populations.  Involved in all sectors of food research and development, FAO has experts working on land and water development, plants and animals, forestry, fisheries, economic and social policy, investment, commodities and trade.

According to Hartwig De  Haen, Assistant Director General, Economic and Social Department, FAO’s mandate on food security embraces a number of issues; poverty both in urban and rural areas; availability of food not only from imports but from increasing the capacity of food production in the rural areas within the countries; to manage and maintain the resource base within countries in order guarantee food availability; to provide information to governments on trade and statistics, data on soils and vegetation cover, and to monitor conditions affecting food production. 

He said, “Food security also has to do with the stability of supply, which has many facets.  It has the political dimension, the environmental dimension—because fragile ecosystems tend to the unstable with regard to production capacity—and there is the macroeconomic framework in which development occurs.

“So in this sense FAO’s mandate is very ambitious and comprehensive,” he said.  He sees FAO as a “catalytic focal point” whose role is to “mobilize action by governments and by all actors of civil society,” he said, adding, “This is an area where we can still do much better.” Barbara Huddleston, Chief, food Security and Agricultural Analysis Service, said, “The heart of the problem is development in certain parts of the world where large parts of the population are still living in rural areas at very low levels of productivity so they  have difficulty generating a sufficient output to enjoy a higher standard of living, whether it be food, housing , clothing or medical care.” She said that this is why FAO is emphasizing the increasing of productivity in low-income food-deficit countries where majority of the population is rural and underdeveloped.

Huddleston admits that the goal of completely eradicating hunger “is a dream we may all have,” but she said that at this Summit, “We are trying to tackle the issue from a realistic base, from a solid base of analysis and with a solid Plan of Action.  We see this Summit as one action in a continuum of activity and work to address this issue.”

An important emphasis at the World Food Summit will be how to grow food in a sustainable manner so as not to destroy the resource base.  Diouf said, “Looking forward to the next decades, an equally daunting challenge menaces our future: how to produce sufficient food, from a finite and diminishing resource base, for nine billion people in 2030.”

Henri Carsalade, Assistant Director General, Sustainable Development Department, is candid about the problem, “It is an ongoing fight to insert the sustainability concept into the process of development.  We are learning every day what sustainability is all about and how to improve our vision.”  He went on to say that NGOs are key partners in this issue and “we have a strong relationship with them.”

Land and Water

Figuring out what can grow where

FAO estimates that some 1000 million hectares of land are affected by wind and water erosion and 200 million hectares by chemical and physical degradation.  More than two-thirds of the water drawn form the Earth’s rivers, lakes and aquifers is used for irrigation but less than half the water diverted for irrigation actually reaches the crops.  In addition global water availability per capital is falling from 16,100 cubic meters in 1950 to a projected 6,600 cubic meters by the 2,000.

Robert Brinkman, FAO’s Director in the Land and Water Division, said “There are various ways that one can improve the efficiency of water use.”  His division is involved in all aspects of water from studying better ways of water management including the importance of having a participatory approach, to water harvesting, drainage and irrigation. 

“Along with the World Health Organization we also deal with water borne diseases, to help with public health issues,” he said.

In the field of land conservation, the Division has worked with 300 experts from many countries to make a soil conservation map that classifies the condition of soils.  This will be used in assisting national governments to know what kind of crops will grow where.

Brinkman sees FAO as an information broker, especially for countries that have an urgent need to improve crop productive. He said, “Before we give advice to farmers we need to know what their needs are.  For instance in developing countries, apart from crops, farmers need to grow fuel wood.  Traditional farmers are very innovative and this is not always recognized.”

FAO has developed software for soil and climate so that farmers can be told how to make the

optimum use of their land.

“We also help to negotiate between farmers and the demands of the agro-industry,” Brinksman said. “In 1990 we worked with governments and advised them on new policies for land users, in the field of conservation, access to markets, lowering transport costs so that they could capitalize on their operation.”

Brinkman feels that transfer of knowledge is an important area and FAO has helped information exchange between countries.

Commodities and Trade

Towards more equitable trade

World agricultural trade amounted to $485 billion in 1994.  However, according to FAO, inequality in world trade adversely affects the ability of poor nations and poor households to meet their basic needs.  Developing countries rely on exports of commodities such as coffee, sugar, cotton and fruits.  The decline commodity prices has led to a decline in purchasing power of poor farmers and huge debts amassed by many developing countries.  By the end of 1990, external debts for all developing countries totaled $319,000 million.

According to Panos Konandreas, senior economist, Commodities and Trade Division, “FAO has a mandate to help developing countries in formulating their negotiating positions in general in the area of trade.”

He went on to explain that commodity services are very analytically oriented.  “We have intergovernmental bodies on various commodities like rice, jute etc.  They meet every two years and analyze market problems and formulate policies.  This consists of both producers and importers and then they formulate specific commodity policies in the interest of developing countries.”

“Our role is to fair brokers and in the process to refer to agreements  that countries have made and to make sure that what goes into the document for the Summit does not contradict agreements reached in other for a.”


A source of food, fuel and fodder

Forests play a crucial role in providing food security, although policy makers often ignore the value of these resources.  Forests provide food, income, fodder for livestock, help to prevent water and wind erosion and provide medicines (the bark of the Western Yew tree yields the drug taxol, an anticancer agent).

In other areas such biodiversity, energy and habitat, according to FAO, forests are the most important gene banks on earth.  If deforestation is not controlled it could be the single greatest cause of species loss over the next 50 years.  In addition, worldwide two billion people depend on wood for cooking.  In many developing countries fuel wood supplies as much as 97 percent of total energy consumption.

David A. Harecharik, Assistant Director General of FAO’s Forestry Department said, “We serve as a neutral policy forum where governments can find solutions to problems.  The  Committee on Forestry, which consists of heads of forestry agencies, meets every two years.  In addition we have six regional forestry commissions.”

“We also serve as a source of information on the state of forests worldwide and produce a report every two years on the State of the World’s Forests.”

FAO also gives technical assistance to developing countries and small financial grants to design projects that are helped by other donor countries.  “We are going through a process of reviewing our programs on forests to clearly identify the goals and objectives and have a stronger partnership with NGOs, the private sector and governments,” said Harcharik.

According to Harcharik the most important issue is to develop a clear understanding of “sustainable forest management.”

“The world should be making more of an effort to look at forests from an economic, social and environmental point of view.”  I hope some of these concepts can be emphasized at the Summit.  Since trees and wood are a renewable resource we should be growing more trees,” he said, “there is going to be a demand for high yielding wood so that people don’t cut old-growth forests.”

Harcharick feels is crucial that forests should be given the same importance as food crops, “We must have more intensively managed high-yield forests, just as we have high yield wheat and grain.”

Women and Food Security

Gender issues and poverty

Women produce 60 to 80 percent of all food grown in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean and more than 50 percent worldwide.  Yet women’s work often goes unrecognized, and they lack the leverage necessary to gain access to resources, training and finance.  In many regions of Africa women spend up to five hours a day collecting fuel wood and water and up to four hours a day preparing food.

FAO estimates that more than 70 percent of the 1,300 million poor people today are women.

Leena M. Kirjavainen, director of the Women and Population Division in FAO, said “FAO has been working in this field since 1949.  Earlier we worked in the areas of nutrition and education and now we are working on field projects for women at the grassroots level and rural development.”

There are three areas FAO focuses on: Field level, which involves women’s participation in rural development; institutional level, which deals with banking, women’s access to credit, markets and infrastructure; and macro level which includes policy support for grassroots projects and income generation.

Marie Randriamamonjy, chief of FAO’s Integration of Women in Development Services, said, “Depending on requests from governments, we help in the field sometimes with

technical advice.  We also help formulate national policy for the advancement of women.”

FAO has helped 40 countries on five continents collect data on rural women.

Randraimamonjy said that in FAO there are 26 programs of action for each sector, to integrate women and gender issues in other fields.  She said, “I am pleased that at this Summit, gender issues are included in the Plan of Action.”

Fishery Resources

Not enough talk of responsibilities?

According to FAO, fish stocks have been so badly depleted that all 18 of the world’s major marine fishing areas have either reached or exceeded their natural limits of production.

Serge M. Garcia, director of Fishery Resources and Environment Division at FAO, said, “We have not been deeply involved in the food security area of FAO, since food grains have the emphasis.  But our position has always been that fish is the staple diet in many areas of the world and is a very important component of food security.”

Garcia sees fishery not only as a sources of food but also an important sources of income and jobs. “For us food security is keeping the resources going in order to keep industry going  and people earning a livelihood and food.”

“We have a resources base producing 100 million tons of fish every year.  Two hundred million people earn a livelihood from this,” he said.

His division has three priorities; improvement of fishery management worldwide because two-thirds of the world stocks today require urgent intervention; enhancing the resource base through stock enhancement and aquaculture; ranching, a technique by which young fish are raised and then introduced into seas and oceans.

“It is important for governments to manage their stocks by changing laws,” said Garcia, “Our bible for this is the Code of Conduct for fishery.  Governments talk too much about their rights and too little about their responsibilities.”

Other challenges are that 27 million tons of fish are being thrown away —more than a quarter of the fish caught annually—because fishermen don’t have gear that will catch only the fish they want.  About 10 percent is damaged and rots due to poor handling.

“We have to train people, create awareness of the problem and give them the appropriate technology,” Garcia said.  “Our role is to collect, analyze and provide strategic information for fishery.