Agriculture 21: Eric, this is COAG's 15th session since it was created in 1971. Could you describe COAG's role and its importance to FAO's programmes?
Kueneman: COAG is a kind of high-level technical advisory committee. Its main purpose is to review and appraise issues in food and agriculture, and make recommendations on them to the FAO Council, which in turn reports to our highest governing body, the FAO Conference. While the Agriculture Department provides the committee's secretariat, COAG covers the three FAO departments directly concerned with crops, livestock, food and nutrition - the Agriculture, Economic and Social, and Sustainable Development Departments. COAG recommendations therefore help guide the major part of FAO's technical and economic programmes and also its position in global development fora.
Agriculture 21: COAG will be reviewing the Organization's reports on its work in the past biennium [1996-1997] and on medium term perspectives in food and agriculture, and its proposed 15-year strategic framework. At what point is the framework and what are its main thrusts?
Kueneman: It's still a "work in progress", currently in its second version with four successive stages foreseen before the final report is presented to the FAO Conference in November this year. It's a central part of FAO's effort to move into the new millennium with a clear vision and more focused objectives. In its current draft the framework proposes five major corporate strategies, or areas for FAO strategic action in the medium to long term. In essence, those are contributing to the eradication of food insecurity and rural poverty, developing regulatory frameworks for food and agriculture, creating sustainable increases in supply and availability of food and other products, supporting the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, and making available a global information database on food and agriculture. The draft also identifies major strategic issues of a cross-organizational nature, and indicates the steps underway or proposed to respond to them. On the basis of guidance received detailed strategies will be prepared to address the issues.
Agriculture 21: Biotecnology is perhaps the most controversial of the four topics selected for COAG review this year. What is FAO's position on the subject?
Kueneman: New developments in biotechnology will have far-reaching impact on agricultural production, food processing and trade in agricultural products. But in this area developing countries are at a big disadvantage because of the relatively high costs of biotechnology, a shortage of trained personnel and lack of adequate policies. In response, COAG is being asked to consider an FAO-wide, coordinated plan of action for the application of biotechnology in agriculture, fisheries and forestry. The aim of the plan is increase our member countries' access to these technologies, help them shape their regulations and legislation, and advise them on biotechnology options. There is also the issue of gene transfer technology, which is of concern to many governments - here, FAO needs to expand its role as a forum for discussion among nations. [For background, see Spotlight: Biotechnology in agriculture.]
Agriculture 21: The emergence of urban and periurban agriculture (UPA) is fairly recent. What does FAO intend doing in this area?
Kueneman: UPA itself isn't new, but with cities growing at their present exponential rate, it's posing serious new management problems. It's estimated that about one in three urban residents globally are involved in food production for their own consumption or for sale to other urban residents. That makes urban and periurban agriculture an increasingly important factor in food security and the urban economy. It's also a major dilemma for policymakers who have to deal with the allocation of limited resources, especially land and water, in the absence of specific policies. For COAG, the key question here is how UPA can be incorporated more fully into the Organization's activities. The proposal is for a proactive, comprehensive programme on UPA in partnership with national and interentional initiatives. [For more, see Spotlight: Issues in urban agriculture.]
Agriculture 21: This the also the first COAG meeting where organic agriculture appears on the agenda...
Kueneman: Yes, we think the time has come for organic agriculture to take a legitimate place in sustainable development programmes. We see it playing an important role in developing innovative production technologies, providing new market opportunities for farmers and processors, and generally focusing attention on environmental and social concerns. COAG will consider the need for an FAO-wide, cross-sectoral programme on organic agriculture that would provide information and discussion forums on production and trade, supply advice and technical assistance, develop standards and use pilot projects to improve organic farming techniques. [See Spotlight: Organic farming.]
Agriculture 21: Finally, monitoring of land and water resources. What are the issues here?
Kueneman: FAO has a widely recognized capacity in assessing land and rural water use, and integrating land and water issues into inland fisheries, forestry and rural development. But we are concerned about very large gaps in data and information at country level. Without this data, it is impossible to build the regional and global systems needed for monitoring global food security and the health of our planet. COAG will provide guidance for FAO on improving national and local land and water resources assessment and monitoring capacity, and continuing its leading role in maintaining global land and water information systems. To do that, of course, more resources will be needed, both for FAO and national programmes. There are also proposals for FAO to produce a periodic report on the state of the world's land and water, and contribute to a UN world water development report. [More in Spotlight: Monitoring land and water.]
Agriculture 21: Eric, you've seen five sessions of COAG in your years at FAO. Do you see some trends in the issues that are being raised and their implications for FAO?
Kueneman: I think they strongly reflect the challenges facing world agriculture and, consequently, FAO itself. For the Organization, what is emerging are themes that cut across traditional lines that have distinguished FAO's various technical divisions and departments. All the papers being reviewed at this latest COAG meeting are the result of consultations and contributions involving various FAO departments. We are being called on to address cross-cutting issues that require systems thinking and closer cooperation among the Organization's technical units. That is essential if FAO's technical and policy guidance to member countries is to remain relevant into the next century.
Published January 1999