14-16 OCTOBER 2001

Does it make sense to talk about agriculture today?

by Louise Fresco

In an era or conflict, Assistant Director-General Louise O. Fresco, asked if it made sense to talk about agriculture. "Current public attention seems so totally riveted to the here-and-now that we tend to forget all that is less visible," she said.

Dr Fresco added that "it seems that literally everything is out of hand: from terrorism to tornadoes, from AIDS to BSE. This is true in both the North and the South. Particularly, in the poorest countries people are engulfed by profound change: in Asia, forests are lost to highways and cities, rice paddies are converted overnight into factories to produce microchips, African cattle die in enormous numbers, not only of natural hazards, but of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, and in rural Latin America tractors are rapidly replacing manual labour and pushing displaced women and men into the masses of urban unemployed."

In light of an increasingly fragile world, she said that "we have a collective responsibility for the long term stability of our global society." So, yes, it does make sense to talk about agriculture, for the following reasons:

- Hunger and poverty increase the risk of social unrest, and most of the hungry live in rural areas or have recently migrated to cities. Only agriculture, not food aid, can help to alleviate poverty and to rehabilitate war-devastated rural areas and keep them liveable.

- The current sense of unease about rapid modernisation is especially prominent in the area of food and agriculture.

- The need and the potential to act collectively and responsibly exists in agriculture.

Agriculture in a new era

Dr Fresco noted that it remained to be seen precisely how the events of 11 September will affect international collaboration.

Dr Fresco said that we must recognise that agriculture is part of the solution and not just a problem. Agricultural development is a key factor in social stability in many parts of the world. "It can help to alleviate the subtle and unspoken fears of modernisation and the pace of change if innovation is handled transparently and justly," she said.

Agriculture in the 21st century will be faced with many new developments, many of them related to the direct and indirect effects of globalisation and modernisation. These include:

- Agriculture will be subjected to more supernational regulations and 'do's and don'ts': the WTO, the CBD, the Kyoto Protocol, regulations on intellectual property rights, regional organizations such as the EU or agreements such as NAFTA.

- The role of civil society will be determinant in reshaping the agricultural sector.

- All this means that agriculture will be about more than just producing calories or dry matter per hectare. Society will put increasing demands on agriculture, not least in the protection of the environmental values.

- Technology will be designed for precision agriculture in the widest sense of the word (not just the tractor with its GPS), with increasingly specialized technology that takes into account the specific conditions of the production system.

- The animal sector will grow considerably; consider that half of the world's poor depend on livestock.

- Greater concentration in the international industrial inputs and processing sectors seems inevitable, yet the dynamics of the medium scale and local industries may be crucial to a healthy commercial development.

- Rather than looking at agriculture in isolation, future research, development and policies need to take account of the entire chain from the physical environment and production to consumption and health.

Dr Fresco added that, "In these days of conflict and insecurity, we must look to opportunities. And reshaping agriculture presents just such an opportunity. There can be no lasting stability and justice without solving the problem of hunger and hence without agriculture which provides the livelihood for every civilization. In a globalized world, local solutions must be embedded in a worldwide context. I believe it is possible to mobilise the will, the resources and the knowledge to do this -- today more than ever."

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Click below to read presentations:

The State of Food Insecurity 2001, by Hartwig de Haen

The Impact of Globalization and Trade Liberalization on Food Security, by Hartwig de Haen

The cost of hunger, by Jean-Louis Arcand

HIV/AIDS and food security, by Marcela Villarreal

Why are so many people hungry in a world that produces enough for all?, by Alan Randell

The potential of new technology: how to feed a growing world population, by Jim Dargie

World Food Day, by Margareta Winberg

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