Honourable Minister of Agriculture,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the Director-General of FAO, Mr Jacques Diouf, I welcome you to this Senior Officers Meeting of the 27th FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific.
For myself, I consider it a privilege and a pleasure to address you, the regions highest officials and experts in agriculture. Your findings in this meeting, I am certain, will provide invaluable input for the region’s ministers of agriculture in the forthcoming ministerial session of the Conference.
Developments in the biennium
A number of significant developments in food and agriculture have taken place since the 26th Regional Conference in Katmandu two years ago.
Production of cereals, the region’s staple food, fell by three and a half percent in 2002 owing primarily to drought and some flooding. But weather improved in most of the region in 2003 and aggregate output has been estimated to rebound to 1.035 billion tonnes.
The depressed global agricultural commodities price situation notwithstanding, prices of several of the region’s export commodities began to recover in 2003/04. Thus rubber, tapioca, palm oil, coconut oil, rice, meat and milk prices have strengthened to a variable extent. Rural incomes have benefited from this price rise.
Regional agricultural trade continued to grow robustly at about three percent per annum in value terms. What is really encouraging was the explosive growth of intra-regional trade. This came about from acceleration of trade liberalization within the region through bilateral and subregional trade agreements in ASEAN and increasingly in East Asia and South Asia.
Following the Asian financial crisis, there seemed to be heightened awareness of the critical role of agriculture in poverty alleviation and food security. In the biennium, China and several ASEAN countries acted to slow down the slide in the percentage of the national budget allocated to agriculture.
There was also increased inter-country collaboration at the highest levels to resolve emerging agricultural problems. Recent initiatives in harmonization of rice export policies, the East Asia Emergency Rice Reserve, the International Rubber Company, intra-regional trade liberalization, and animal and plant diseases prevention and preparedness were cases in point.
Meanwhile, the current Doha Round of trade negotiations promises to be more development oriented paying increased attention to poverty alleviation. So far WTO members have committed themselves to a comprehensive and effective reduction of domestic support and export subsidy and improvement of market access. But the modalities of implementation, especially those taking care of the special needs of developing countries, continue to be debated.
But there were also unpleasant surprises in the biennium. The Avian Influenza epidemic affected many countries in the region, but was contained.
Despite steady recovery from disasters, food crises requiring exceptional assistance persisted in four countries. Funding and other difficulties severely limited production and import capacities of these food-shortage countries.
At the same time, natural disasters continued to take their toll on rural livelihoods. There were earthquakes in Afghanistan, Iran and Indonesia, floods in Timor-Leste, drought in Sri Lanka, landslides in the Philippines and forest fires in many countries in the region during biennium.
In food security, we are nowhere near the rate of progress needed to meet the World Food Summit target of halving the number of undernourished by 2015. It may be useful for me to stress that the number of undernourished in the region decreased by only 6.8 million annually in the nineties. This was only half the required rate of progress needed to meet the target. For the region to get on track, we will now have to reduce the number of undernourished by 15 million annually—more than twice the original planned rate. This is a formidable task indeed.
Let me now turn to longer term trends that will determine the course of sustainable agriculture and food security.
Strategic trends and challenges
This region has achieved much in agriculture. There have been steady though slow productivity gains. Food availability and diets have improved in many countries and for the region as a whole. Rural incomes are beginning to rise although the phenomenon is by no means uniform. But there are also unfavorable trends and major challenges ahead.
To begin with, this is a densely populated region wherein natural resources are almost fully utilized. But the agricultural population has been growing steadily at 0.5 percent per annum in the past decade. Unless population growth is arrested or productivity gains are accelerated, poverty alleviation will advance much too slowly. Moreover, already critical population density related issues like migration, the greying and feminization of agriculture, increasing fragility of agro-ecosystems and others may be aggravated.
Population pressure forces agricultural intensification leading to land degradation and water scarcity. Deforestation, water-shed destruction, wind and water erosion, silting, soil deterioration and water scarcity have reached alarming proportions. The impending climate change is likely to make matters worse.
The region’s agriculture is primarily rainfed. Only a third of the region’s agricultural land is irrigated. Irrigation expansion at 1.5 percent per annum has been too slow. Much of the irrigation systems are old and in disrepair and there is rampant wastage and loss of water. Unless this situation is improved, productivity of the diverse agro-ecosystems will remain low.
The Asia-Pacific Region is highly disaster prone. This vulnerability is not just from inclement weather. It is also from pests and diseases, economic mismanagement and civil strife. The recent outbreaks of SARS, Avian Flu and the Nipah Virus, the earlier Asian financial crisis and on-going civil unrest in several countries evidenced this vulnerability.
There is increasing disparity in the distribution of farming resources, infrastructure and services leading to growing income inequity. Income gaps are widening among localities, subsectors, communities and households. The rural scenario is marked by sizeable pockets of the hardcore poor doomed to undernourishment because of insufficient resources, harsh agro-ecological environments, unsustainable farming systems, and remote locations.
Recognizing these challenges, we felt that the region needed a strategic framework to guide medium-term planning and biennial programming. Such a Regional Strategic Framework would emphasize the needs of the region and factor in the regional trends. It would be an integral part of FAO’s Global Strategic Framework.
With this in mind, the FAO Regional Office initiated a participatory process in April 2003 to forge the Regional Strategic Framework. We sounded out national counterparts and development partners and held in-depth discussions to analyze issues, recognize challenges, identify priority areas, assess capacities and suggest implementation guidelines. In the formulation, we paid special attention to the need for interdisciplinarity, broadening of partnerships and alliances and leveraging resources.
The outcome of this year-long effort is a document reiterating FAO’s global vision and mission in food security and articulating strategic elements that the Organization and its member countries might adopt in Asia and the Pacific.
In this Framework six thematic areas have been prioritized for national and collective action. They are: restructuring of agriculture; decentralization of governance; reducing vulnerability to disasters; promoting sustainable use of natural resources; strengthening biosecurity; and enhancing the future of rice.
These priority themes for interdisciplinary action will hopefully provide opportunities for countries to work with FAO in pursuance of their own national strategies. I would like to add that they would also bring us closer to the rate of progress needed to meet the Word Food Summit target on hunger reduction.
In FAO, we are confident of our ability to mobilize the multidisciplinary expertise and attract the necessary resources to work with you on these priority themes and others in pursuance of food security. In this regard, we have recently launched two far-reaching initiatives. These were, first, the high level Roundtable on the Regional Alliance Against Hunger in October 2003, followed by the Roundtable on Spearheading Subregional Programmes and Cooperation for Eradication of Poverty and Food Insecurity in February 2004. They are being succeeded by a third major initiative, namely the Roundtable on Financing for Agricultural Development being convened in parallel to this Conference.
Let me now say a few words on the work of this Senior Officers Meeting. In consultation with your governments, FAO is tabling three agenda items for discussion in this Conference. They are: Rice in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development in Asia and the Pacific; Institution Building to Strengthen Agriculture Extension; and Follow-up to the World Food Summit and World Food Summit: five years later.
In support of your discussions, FAO is also presenting reports of six recent major initiatives. They are on seed policy, animal genetic resources, the International Year of Rice, bridging the rural digital divide, climate change and national strategies for agricultural development.
The task of this Senior Officers Meeting will be to report its findings to the ministerial segment of this Conference. Given the wide differences of experience, it will require much hard work to agree on many issues. But in light of the need for collective action in resource mobilization, technology transfer and institutional development, I am confident that we will come up with clear-sighted recommendations for endorsement by our ministers.
Finally allow me to thank, on behalf of the Director-General of FAO, our host country, the People’s Republic of China. In doing so, I would like to express my gratitude to the Minister of Agriculture and his staff for their cooperation and assistance in organizing this Conference and for the warm welcome and generous hospitality they have extended to us.
Permit me also to thank you, distinguished participants, for taking time off from your important duties to participate in this Meeting.
I wish you a fruitful Meeting.
Thank you for your kind attention.