The year is drawing to a close on a world facing conflict and uncertainty. In times like these, how difficult is it to keep a focus on issues like poverty and hunger, let alone agriculture?
"Along with the tension and a sense of insecurity, there is also an acute awareness of our collective responsibility for the well-being of global society. If anything, the past year has seen a deepened sense of global ownership of problems that are all closely linked to agriculture, poverty and hunger - from economic globalization and trade relations to the use of biotechnology and conservation of the environment. In times like these, we have to look for opportunities, and reshaping agriculture for the common good presents just such an opportunity."
But some see ahead of us a period of continuing friction over many of the problems you mention. How do you see it?
"The world is more complex than in the past, and it is being made ever more so by globalization. Categories like 'developed' and 'developing' countries are probably not useful anymore. We could say there are three 'worlds'. One more or less coincides with the OECD group - 1,000 million people for whom food security is not an issue, who are removed from their agricultural roots, who are increasingly conscious of environmental issues but for whom international aid and development are low on the agenda.
"At the other extreme are more than 1,000 million people who live on less than $1 day. These people are mainly rural, and they are chronically malnourished either quantitatively - the 800 million or so who simply don't get enough to eat - or through micronutrient deficiencies. They live in countries where the free market economic model does not work, or at least not adequately. They are the ones who qualify most for humanitarian assistance, but the whole approach to development needs to be reformulated, because at present we don't have good answers for these people.
Globalization seems to have a bad name particularly in the sector of food and agriculture. What are its implications for agricultural development?
"Like it or not, the world is going to be evermore interconnected. There are massive movements of people and goods and it's unlikely it will stop. But the major paradox of the market economy model is that the more you globalize and the more you leave the market free, the more you need to regulate it, to correct its negative effects on public goods - such as the environment, equity and public health. That is why we need agreements, guidelines, standards and standard-setting authorities, and this is the area where FAO has a rapidly growing role: in advising the middle group of countries, in shaping the thinking of the richer countries, and protecting the most vulnerable at the bottom end of the scale. What we should aim for is 'globalization with a human face', one that respects diversity. To achieve that, we might take the advice of the economist, Joseph Stiglitz, to 'scan globally and re-invent locally'. Local adaptation often amounts to reinventing best practices in a new context.
Biotechnology arouses both enthusiasm and alarm. How do you see its role in agriculture?
"There is no consensus in most countries on how biotechnology and, in particular, genetically modified organisms [GMOs], should address the key challenges in food and agriculture. FAO recognizes both the great potential, and the complications, of these new technologies. Some of the reactions to biotechnology are irrational, but the important message is that people feel they have not been adequately consulted on the question of what shape their food production, food supply and agriculture should take. But much of the public alarm overlooks the fact that biotechnology's greatest potential is not in GMOs but in biotechnology processes - molecular markers, proteomics and so on.
"Taking a long-term view, biotechnology may offer some interesting alternatives for major regions of the world where agriculture will be the economic mainstay for the foreseeable future. For example, in marginal, dry areas, could goats and sheep produce pharmaceutical or other chemical products in their milk? At the moment that presents both technical and ethical problems - it would be mean some biological change in the makeup of those sheep and goats - but it would certainly help these areas produce something with a very high value per unit of product. Of course, such an approach is not acceptable to large parts of the public right now, although the use of biotechnology for medical purposes has become more acceptable.
The most controversial aspect of biotechnology is the introduction of GMOs in crop production. How is the Agriculture Department addressing that concern?
"We have far more evidence of their effects (or absence of effects) on human health than we have understanding, let alone evidence, on the environmental implications. One of the main environmental concerns is 'outcrossing events', for example the risk of a herbicide-tolerant crop transferring genes to a wild relatives, which would then have a selective advantage as weeds - i.e. they would be resistant to herbicides. Early in May 2003 we'll be holding an expert consultation to look at those environmental questions - not only gene transfer, but longer term effects. For example, what might be the effect of 'Bt crops' [containing genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium that produces a protein toxic to some insects] on soil flora and bacteria? Or, if we develop salt-resistance in rice, could that lead to massive destruction of mangrove forests for rice cultivation? So we're asking 20 of the world's leading experts on GMOs to advise us on three points: the ecosystem and evolutionary impacts of GMO introductions, good agricultural practices regarding them, and the scientific basis for informed regulatory decisions, especially in developing countries.
The Department has also been working on "Good Agricultural Practices". At point are they?
"Good Agricultural Practices is our way of translating all the wishful thinking on sustainable agriculture into very concrete recommendations for countries and production systems - and also for consumers so they know what they're buying. We already have proven methodologies such as Integrated Pest Management and Conservation Agriculture which address specific production issues, and Codex Alimentarius, for food safety standards. But the agricultural sector as a whole lacks a unifying framework that can guide national action on the policies and methods needed to achieve sustainable agriculture. So the purpose of this initiative is to present basic principles of good practice in areas such as soil and water, crop and animal production, on-farm processing, energy and waste management, human welfare, and wildlife and landscape. So far we have prepared a framework with the focal points for stakeholder groups, and we'll seek guidance on that from FAO's Committee on Agriculture in April 2003.