Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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Director-General's speeches



Yangon, 20 -24 April 1998
Mr Chairman,
Mr. Independent Chairman of the Council
Distinguished Ministers
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Five months ago, the FAO Conference met in Rome where it reviewed the state of food and agriculture in the world and the past and future activities of the Organization.

Although according to the latest estimates the overall world economy grew by a satisfactory rate of approximately 4 percent in 1997, the food and agriculture situation was one of contrasts. Agricultural production only increased by an estimated 1.1 percent and cereal stocks are still below the security threshold. Furthermore, development aid has hovered in recent years at a nominal US $60 billion and has therefore fallen in real terms, while the portion of this aid earmarked for agriculture slumped from US $16 billion in 1988 to some US $10 billion in 1996.

FAO’s activities in the previous biennium were marked by the World Food Summit held in November 1996 since then, several initiatives have been undertaken to implement the resulting Plan of Action:

During the last biennium, the Organization continued to help implement the Marrakech agreements by organizing regional workshops and executing national projects. The Organization will also step up its action to assist in the preparation of future trade negotiations, working closely with the WTO, the World Bank and UNCTAD.

In accordance with the directives adopted by the Summit, FAO has also encouraged the launching of “Food for All” campaigns to mobilize civil society. A number of countries have already initiated a process of national consultation to this effect. The “TeleFood 1997” operation that was broadcast by some one hundred television channels in over 70 countries gave 500 million viewers an added insight into the problems of hunger and malnutrition and laid the foundations of a system for the raising of funds which - already this year - will finance small projects of direct assistance to rural communities in developing countries, helping them boost agricultural production. As endorsed by the last Conference of FAO, TeleFood is to be an annual event to be held within the celebration of World Food Day. The next edition will be held from 16 to 18 October 1998 and will be larger in scale than last year.

Finally, interagency co-operation for implementing the Summit Plan of Action has been put in place with the establishment of a Network on Rural Development and Food Security led by FAO and IFAD. The mechanism for monitoring the Summit Plan of Action has also been set up and the Committee on World Food Security will evaluate progress at its next session, as you will yourselves for the Asia and Pacific region.

Among the other FAO initiatives with world-wide impact undertaken during the 1996/97 biennium, I should like to mention:

The annual report State of Food and Agriculture continues to be the main source of general information in this area and now includes a section on developments in food security as a follow-up to the Summit. This document is complemented by The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture and State of the World’s Forests. The Sixth World Food Survey was published in 1996. As for the long-term world outlook for agriculture and food security, a study will be carried out on the likely scenario until 2015, with a more general evaluation taking us to 2030.

With respect to the dissemination of information, the introduction of new technologies has rationalized and modernized systems, while reducing costs. The World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT) now offers ready access to essential information for food security and sustainable rural development: FAOSTAT for statistical data, FAOINFO for textual information and FAOSIS for specialized information systems, in particular on animal genetic resources, pesticides and the Global Information and Early Warning System.

FAO’s site on the Internet is posting over 1 million hits each month and is providing information to English-, Arabic-, Spanish- and French-speaking users. At the same time, 2000 CD-ROMs have been distributed to Member Nations to provide access to WAICENT in areas where the Internet is not yet readily available. These services will be further expanded in 1998-99 to enable Member Nations to take full advantage of the Organization’s wealth of documentary information.

Actions for the advancement of women are given priority status in the general drive to involve the whole of society in the common pursuit of “Food for All”. FAO’s technical departments have been requested to bear gender parity in mind when formulating programmes and projects. The Special Programme for Food Security should improve the access of rural women to technologies, inputs and credit, which is why special emphasis has been placed on poultry raising and market gardening.

The Organization has strengthened coordination and co-operation with its partners to ensure that all its programmes can be implemented against a backdrop of budgetary constraint: with the World Bank and the regional banks through new agreements, mainly for the implementation of the Special Programme for Food Security; with the food and agriculture institutions based in Rome, IFAD and WFP; with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, its Technical Advisory Committee and its institutes; with the other UN agencies under the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination; and with the private sector and the community of non-governmental organizations.

Similarly, co-operation has been stepped up with many Member Nations. Over the past three years, some 1300 experts have been implementing FAO programmes under agreements for co-operation between developing countries and countries in transition and co-operation with academic and research institutions, and by hiring retired experts. In support of the Special Programme for Food Security, a number of South-South co-operation agreements have enabled more advanced developing countries, with FAO assistance, to provide a critical mass of field technicians in the rural communities of other developing countries. Five countries from the Asia and the Pacific region have agreed to provide such assistance and it is hoped that others will join soon. Finally, with a view to building national capacities, FAO is looking into training opportunities offered by Member Nations in the areas of its mandate for students and trainees from developing countries and will itself employ young professionals, within the limit of available resources, so that they can add practical experience to their academic training.

One of FAO’s ongoing concerns is to promote investment in agriculture. During the last three years, 24 projects prepared with the assistance of the Investment Centre in the Asia and the Pacific region were approved for financing for a total value of US $3,564 million, including US $2,245 million of external loans.

FAO’s Technical Co-operation Programme continues to act as a strong catalyst on account of its defining characteristics of rapid approval, limited project duration, low costs and practical orientation. A total of 86 new projects were implemented in the Asia and Pacific region in 1996-97.

The restructuring of FAO has proceeded under conditions of severe budgetary limitations, with a focus on identifying savings and improving efficiency through decentralization.

Besides reducing the number of staff members - posts fell from 4185 in January 1994 to 3599 in January 1998 - annual savings of US $25 million have been made by cuts in travel, translations, publications and meetings. Growing attention is now being given to training staff, raising the contingent of women professionals and ensuring equitable representation of Member Nations: the number of countries not represented among the staff dropped from 54 in January 1994 to 29 in February 1998, taking into account ongoing recruitment.

The decentralization process is nearing completion: all the new liaison and sub-regional offices are open and the Regional Office in Bangkok has been substantially strengthened; Member Nation coverage by the network of FAO representatives has been extended through multiple accreditation and the use of National Programme Officers and National Correspondents. At present, 39 percent of the staff are assigned to decentralized offices. The decentralization of policy assistance and project operations will bring FAO more closely in touch with the needs of its Member Nations.

The restructuring process has been accompanied by a delegation of operational, administrative and financial responsibilities to departments at Headquarters and teams in the field, with the establishment of the Management Support Units and tighter audit control in all regional, sub-regional and country offices.

I should like to conclude this overview of the highlights of the last two years by recalling that the Conference approved a Programme of Work and Budget for 1998/99 with zero nominal growth which, in real terms, amounts to a reduction of 3.7 percent. Despite this, however, the Organization has a unanimously endorsed programme which, in contrast to the two previous biennia, will not need adjustment. I think I can safely say that the Organization has successfully completed its period of reform and that it can now look to the future with confidence and buckle down to its appointed mission of helping to achieve sustainable food security for all.

Mr. Chairman,

Allow me now to address the situation of food and agriculture in Asia and the Pacific and to briefly discuss recent events of great concern to most countries in the region.

During the last two decades the Asia and Pacific region has led the world in economic growth. Most countries saw rapid and sustained growth for a considerable period. While agriculture GDP changed gradually from 30 percent in the mid-1980s to about 20 percent in recent past, the sector remains a driving economic force. More than 65 percent of the region's inhabitants live in rural areas; and agriculture employs more than half of the economically active population.

Unfortunately, the “El Niño” phenomenon has once again seriously affected a number of countries and underscored the existence of pockets of vulnerability to food insecurity in the region. Floods, and other natural hazards such as earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, and forest fires have also plagued large areas. They have been a major cause of food insecurity among the vulnerable segment of the population, with large and devastating impact in terms of price upswings and instability of food access, coupled with damaged production and market infrastructures.

In a similar manner, the contagion of monetary and financial instability puts in jeopardy the region’s progress towards sustainable food security and poverty alleviation. This instability poses a number of challenges to agriculture, fisheries and forestry. More than ever, the sector is called upon to absorb displaced labour, produce more export crops for foreign exchange, increase domestic food supply to mitigate upward pressures in wages, prices, and inflation rate, and to generate domestic sources of investment. In this context, the Organization, in consultation with the World Bank, is preparing programmes to develop peri-urban agriculture in those countries which are most affected by the current crisis as it is felt that these programmes could greatly contribute to lessen the problem of unemployment and urban poverty which have been exacerbated by the financial situation and adjustment programmes.

Under the new economic paradigm, a declining public sector role together with high costs, will diminish the influence of domestic procurement vis-à-vis international stocks in stabilizing domestic food prices and supply. On top of this, world food prices vary widely. The inherent risks and uncertainties associated with trade-oriented supply stabilization are a serious food security issue.

Household food insecurity as a result of poverty continues to be a major challenge in the region where the bulk (74 percent) of the poor in the developing world is located. Poverty is mainly a rural phenomenon; it accounts for about three-fourths of the total. As the large majority of the rural poor depend on agriculture for employment and income, agricultural growth offers a potentially enormous source of poverty reduction, particularly when the growth is broadly based.

Given rising population, shrinking agricultural land, increasing demands on limited water resources from the expanding urban and industrial sectors, intensified cropping, and widespread land degradation, sustainable agricultural resource management is crucial for food security. The challenge is one of how to increase output from the sector while sustaining and enhancing the productive potential of the available resources.

Mr Chairman,

Against this backdrop, I wish to briefly address the issue of management and conservation of fisheries resources in the Asia and Pacific region which was considered by the Senior Officers meeting. As you know, fisheries plays a vital role in feeding the world's population, contributing significantly to the dietary protein intake of hundreds of million of people. Aquaculture has not only a long history in this region, but it also currently contributes about 87.7 percent of world aquaculture production of fish and shellfish. However, the multiple benefits and changing roles of fisheries in the development process have been frequently neglected in the past. Instead, crop and livestock issues have dominated research, investment and policy agenda related to food production. Today, fishery resources are moving to the forefront of national and global policy debates about how to restructure economic, institutional and political systems for sustainable development.

Management is an essential tool for the sound and sustainable development of fisheries. Governments should, therefore, give priority attention to fisheries management and endeavour to strengthen their management capacity through the improvement of fishery information and statistical data for appraisals of resources and for management decisions. Aquaculture has a great potential for further augmenting production in this region. In particular, rural aquaculture can play a valuable role, in ensuring food security in rural areas.

In so doing, the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries should be used widely as a guideline in the formulation and implementation of fisheries management systems. Regional Workshops/Seminars on the implications of the Code should be organized at the sub-regional and regional level.

In the same vein, I would also mention the need to give priority attention to the management of other natural resources. A recent FAO report on land degradation in South Asia noted that " evidence is sufficient to call for immediate action to prevent further land degradation and, where possible, to reverse the effects of past degradation." This statement is widely held to hold true for East and Southeast Asia. Another report noted evidence of environmental stress in the Pacific countries although the specific nature and urgency of the problem varies. Major aspects of land degradation and food insecurity can be attributed to poor forest management and deforestation. The Asia-Pacific Forestry Sector Outlook Study, carried out over the past two years under the auspices of the Regional Forestry Commission, dramatically highlighted the challenges facing the sector in the coming decade and in particular that the forests of the region were under severe threat, with a faster clearance rate than anywhere else in the world.

Some Asian forests are also experiencing considerable damage from fire, with serious impact both locally and regionally. The extent and effect of forest fires are clearly related to climatic and environmental conditions, but also and very importantly to policies, laws and institutional arrangements which directly affect forest ecosystems and land clearing practices. Any attempts to reduce the incidence and effect of forest fires will therefore require a comprehensive review of all relevant policies, strategies, legal and institutional measures. FAO has worked closely with a number of Asian countries to develop National Fire Protection Policies and will continue to provide information and technical assistance to its members on forest fire prevention and control. In response to growing concerns on this matter, a Forest Fire Consultation Meeting was convened during the 11th World Forestry Congress in October 1997, followed by an Information Meeting during the 29th FAO Conference in November. Participants noted the effects of land use policies on fires and called for FAO to convene an international consultation on forest fires, emphasising policy issues and resource mobilization.

The Consultation planned for later this year, will bring together key experts in land use policies from sister UN Organizations, governments, the private sector , NGO’s and international agencies and will act as a forum for open dialogue on policy initiatives that can be taken to reduce fire risk and outbreaks. FAO will also intensify efforts to use the Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture for forest fire prediction. For example, it can be used to provide early warning about adverse weather patterns such as El Niño that have direct impact on prevailing environmental conditions which exacerbate fires.

Finally, I should like to stress that FAO is committed to collaborate closely with UNEP, UNDP and other international organizations to mobilize coordinated international responses to assist countries in responding to catastrophic wildfires. Strong inter-agency partnership will be required to address the extent and complexity of the growing forest fire problem. Meanwhile, it is encouraging to note that countries in the region are increasingly giving sustainable forest management its due priority.

Water is also vital for agriculture and, like land, is a finite resource. Per caput water availability in the region, which fell by half in the 30 years ending 1980, may fall by another 35 percent by the year 2000. With much of the region’s crop production dependent on irrigation, this decline in water availability has potentially severe implications for food security. The situation is exacerbated by the growing competition for water from the urban and industrial sectors.

Technology has proved instrumental in accelerating agricultural production and national economic development in the region. Yield increase is projected to remain as the primary source of growth in the future. Yet, national and international support to agricultural research and development and the diffusion and transfer of technology have been on the decline.

Mr Chairman,

Overcoming the above challenges calls for the promotion of a paradigm of agricultural and rural development with a broad multi-sectoral base and linkages, and which enhances the opportunities for individuals to develop their full potential as human beings. Development strategies need to be oriented in a manner that will improve the quality of human life, while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.

For my part, despite the current difficulties, I remain convinced that the economic fundamentals for long-term growth and prospects for the region are sound. Its leaders have underlined their resolve to achieve sustainable growth, to preserve the dynamism and resilience of the region, and to unlock the full potential of the people who live here. Without doubt, the Asia and Pacific region will continue to play a leading role in the global economy in the years to come.

Thank you for your attention.

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