PR 96/11


Tel Aviv, 1 May -- The Mediterranean countries will face severe ecological problems unless they produce food in a more environmental friendly way, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "The sustainability of Mediterranean agriculture appears questionable unless urgent and drastic measures are taken to reverse the trend", FAO says in a document prepared for its Regional Conference for Europe, meeting in Tel Aviv.

The Regional Conference for Europe is a biennial gathering of ministers of agriculture from the 40 member countries of FAO in the European region, and around 10 observers, among them the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Canada. The Conference is organized in cooperation with the UN Economic Commission for Europe. This year, the Regional Conference acts as a major gathering ahead of the first World Food Summit to be held in Rome November 13-17.

Current trends indicate that a "water crisis" is approaching several areas of the Mediterranean basin, most notably the Middle East and North Africa, but also in Greece, southern Spain and Turkey. By the year 2000, FAO said, the North African countries bordering the Mediterranean will face acute water shortages. A country is considered "water deficient" when water supplies average less than 1000 mŽ per person per year. Irrigation accounts for some 80 percent of withdrawals throughout the area. Water demand is expanding most rapidly in urban areas.

Since additional fresh water is not available, water saving techniques have to be refined and alternative water resources (brackish groundwater, drainage, water and seawater) to be used.

The coastal parts of the Mediterranean are reputed to have the best soils in the area. However, due to urban expansion and tourism, farming has been transferred towards increasingly marginal lands.

In the more arid part of the basin over-exploitation of the land through over-cultivation, over-grazing, poor irrigation practices, and destruction of woody vegetation, lead to desertification. Progress of action plans, policies and programmes to combat desertification has been limited.

In the Mediterranean basin as a whole, FAO expects deforestation will continue at a much greater rate than needed for agricultural expansion. Today in the northern Mediterranean countries, the areas reforested are generally less than those lost due to fire and harvesting. "In southern Mediterranean countries one of the most destructive human activities leading to desertification and deforestation has been and still is the uncontrolled gathering of fuelwood", FAO noted.

More than 50 percent of agricultural soils in the Mediterranean basin are estimated to be seriously threatened by erosion. Erosion is rapidly increasing in the Mediterranean watersheds. Erosion rates in Italy, Morocco and Spain may sporadically exceed annually 250 tons per hectare. Advancing erosion seems irreversible in parts of Mediterranean Spain. In Turkey, where 70 percent of land is affected by erosion, it is estimated that 1000 million tons of fertile land is lost each year through erosion by wind and water. For the marginal lands of the southern and eastern countries of the basin, the consequences are still more serious.

Very serious problems of salinization are reported in the southern and western Mediterranean countries where arid conditions favour the development of salinization. The salt affected soils in the Mediterranean countries amount today to some 16 million hectares of the irrigated land or 25 percent of the total irrigated crop land.

"The Mediterranean environment needs to be preserved and sustained without depriving the millions of people who live on its shores of the benefits of economic development and technical progress. Environmentally benign technologies should be further developed and shared among countries. In the formulation of national agricultural policies, Mediterranean cooperation should constitute an important dimension", the FAO report said. Cross-border problems like pollution, water, labour and food security have to be dealt with on an international level, FAO said, but require also a multitude of locally adapted measures.