New avenues for agriculture in the third millennium

FAO's Committee on Agriculture (COAG) opens its 15th session on 25 January with an agenda that highlights some of the major issues faced by agriculture at the turn of the century. Biotechnology, organic agriculture, urban agriculture and monitoring of land and freshwater resources will all be discussed.

The committee's new secretary, Eric Kueneman, describes COAG as "a kind of high-level technical advisory committee" (go to interview with Kueneman). COAG involves the three FAO departments that are directly concerned with crops, livestock and food and nutrition - the Agriculture, Economic and Social and Sustainable Development Departments. It meets once every two years and delegates from 98 countries are expected to attend the 1999 session.

Biotechnology laboratory in Panama: FAO is working to bring the benefits of biotechnology to farmers in developing countries
FAO/16066/G. Bizzarri

The meeting will recommend priorities and ways forward for FAO on the four main subjects. For biotechnology - one of today's most hotly debated agricultural issues - FAO is seeking to harness the positive potential of new techniques to "enhance agricultural productivity for now and the future". In keeping with its focus on the needs of developing countries, FAO stresses that "biotechnology research and policy should also address the needs of the poor who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods..." (Go to Agriculture 21 Magazine: Biotechnology in agriculture)

Organic agricultural produce is sometimes branded a luxury item, but demand is growing worldwide. Markets for "green food" are well established in developed countries - 10 percent of Austria's food system is organic - and new markets are opening up in developing countries too. FAO is working to harmonize regulations and trading requirements and to support producers in developing countries in their efforts to gain access to these new markets. (Go to Agriculture 21: Organic farming)

Farming in and around towns and cities - urban and peri-urban agriculture - is another growing phenomenon, particularly in developing countries where city food supply systems are often less than adequate. City dwellers are increasingly supplementing their diets and boosting their incomes by growing their own produce wherever they can. Commercial livestock farming is also increasingly common in peri-urban areas. (Go to PhotoFile on Urban and peri-urban agriculture)

FAO is stressing the need for "distinct policies and planning efforts" to deal with urban agriculture and emphasizing that it should not be developed in competition with rural agriculture, "but should concentrate on activities in which it has a comparative advantage, such as production of fresh, perishable foods." (Go to Agriculture 21: Issues in urban agriculture)

Grenada: watering cinnamon plants. Irrigation uses about 70 percent of water withdrawals, but irrigation expansion is in decline
FAO/12405/F. Mattioli

During the twentieth century, global withdrawals of freshwater have increased twice as fast as population. Irrigated agriculture uses about 70 percent of the water withdrawn and over 90 percent in some arid developing countries. But expansion of irrigation is already in decline because freshwater resources are limited. Accurate monitoring of these and land resources is vital to sustainable agricultural development. FAO expects land in crop production to expand "on an estimated 5 percent of the land reserve by 2010", but warns that "agricultural land use tends to encroach on fragile ecosystems and forests, wetlands or protected areas and the process requires close monitoring and policy measures to be introduced to reverse the trends." (Go to Agriculture 21: Monitoring land and water)

22 January 1999

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