H.E. Theera Wongsamut, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand
Honourable Mr Sundram Pushpanathan, Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN
for ASEAN Economic Community
Distinguished delegates from ASEAN+3 countries
Colleagues from UN Agencies and other international organizations
Distinguished civil society representatives from the region
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A pleasant good morning to all of you!
On behalf of the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, my colleagues at the FAO Regional Office in Bangkok and on my own behalf, I have the great pleasure and honour to welcome you to this ASEAN-FAO Regional Conference on Food Security. We are so delighted to co-organize this important conference with the ASEAN Secretariat, with whom FAO has had long-standing collaboration in serving our Member Countries on food security and agricultural and rural development. This meeting is held at an extremely opportune time given many crises that have afflicted the global economy including Southeast Asia in ways that we never imagined a few years back.
The achievements of Southeast Asian countries in economic growth, poverty alleviation and hunger reduction in the last several decades are well-known and indeed remarkable. Despite these impressive achievements, many millions in the region are still mired in poverty and hunger. In 2003-05, before the soaring food prices in 2007-08, Southeast Asia was estimated to have 87 million undernourished people. The unprecedented increases in food prices and the financial crisis made millions poorer and vulnerable to food insecurity in the subsequent period. In 2007 alone an additional 75 million people fell below the hunger threshold, of which 41 million, or 54 percent, were from the Asia-Pacific region. These crises have mostly affected the poor, both in rural and urban areas. High prices threaten to undermine progress towards the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating hunger and achieving other Millennium targets, particularly education, child and maternal mortality reduction, and containing the spread of major diseases.
While the whole of Southeast Asia is progressing, there are considerable inter-country variations in the incidence of poverty and food insecurity. The ASEAN region includes the largest rice exporters as well as the largest rice importer in the world. The region is also highly prone to natural disasters. The rural people and agricultural households are poorer without exception. An irony that we observe everywhere is that those who produce food are the most food insecure. Similarly, the urban poor who depend on wage incomes are also highly food insecure, despite their being employed. The recent experience with soaring food prices clearly demonstrated that the low income households who depend on the market for their food suffer, even in rice surplus countries as domestic rice prices increase due to increased exports. Even high income countries in the region, with small populations and adequate capacity to import, felt the brunt of high food prices due to the adverse effect on the rate of inflation and the uncertainty regarding the availability of supply as exporting countries imposed restrictions on exports.
The current global economic crisis has emerged as yet another challenge to the agriculture sector and food security. According to the Asian Development Bank, average economic growth in Asia in 2009 will be about half that in 2008. This is adversely affecting the demand for agricultural products and household income from off-farm employment, remittances and tourism. Investment in agriculture is likely to be affected by the reduced flow of foreign direct investment and official development assistance. The effects of the recession in the developed world are already felt in the region in terms of rising unemployment in manufacturing, construction and services sectors. The International Labour Organization has warned that this recession may add more than 30 million people to the pool of unemployed by the end of 2009. However, over 20 million workers are reported to have lost their jobs in China alone. In the Philippines and Thailand also significant loss of employment has been reported. A significant part of those losing jobs migrate back to their roots in rural areas, creating further pressure on arable area and the environment.
The chronic and transitory food insecurity persisting in parts of the region present challenges for policy-makers at every level, whether local, national, regional or international. The issues are complex and finding solutions would naturally require the involvement of all the stakeholders including the public sector, private enterprises, regional inter-governmental bodies, international institutions, civil society and, most importantly, the people who are affected.
FAO recognizes the importance the ASEAN governing bodies have attached to addressing hunger and poverty in the region. All major ASEAN declarations, resolutions and action plans have underscored eradication of hunger and poverty from the region as a major goal. While reduction of poverty and hunger clearly fall within the domain of national governments, the ASEAN member countries have recognized that regional organizations can play significant roles in facilitating inter-country cooperation and action on issues of a transboundary nature, such as the optimum use of forest and river-basin systems, regional transport networks, the control of avian influenza and harmonization of policies and standards across countries. This is where our efforts can truly converge and synergize.
While relentlessly pursuing collaboration with member countries in achieving the World Food Summit target of halving the number of undernourished by 2015, FAO has actively responded to emerging crises. Being the key United Nations Agency assisting member countries in agricultural and rural development and food security, soon after food prices started to rise very rapidly in 2007, FAO launched the Initiative on Soaring Food Prices (ISFP) in December 2007 directed at mitigating the adverse effects in the short-term and preparing medium- to long-term strategies to strengthen livelihoods and food security. The Initiative follows the two-track approach that FAO has been advocating: one track targeting the immediate needs of vulnerable groups and the other to strengthen the food production capacity of member countries to improve their resilience to shocks and achieve sustainable food security. We are happy to note that FAO has assisted around 20 member countries in the region under this Initiative in taking immediate actions to increase food production and expand access to food as well in formulating medium and longer-term strategies.
I am happy to note that FAO has developed effective partnerships with two key regional organizations in Asia: ASEAN and SAARC. Our collaboration with ASEAN has particularly gathered momentum in the last one year in the context of the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework (AIFS) and the Strategic Plan of Action on ASEAN Food Security (SPA-FS). FAO was involved in the formulation process through participation in the Special Senior Officers’ Meeting of the 29th AMAF held in August 2008 in Chiang Mai, Thailand and the 30th AMAF held in October 2008 in Hanoi, Viet Nam which endorsed the draft Framework and the Plan of Action. In recognition of FAO’s mandate on food security, the ASEAN Secretariat and the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs requested us to organize a preparatory ASEAN-UN meeting on food security at our Regional Office in Bangkok. Subsequently, FAO was invited to the ASEAN-UN meeting on food security in November 2008 in Manila as the lead UN Agency. The Manila meeting formulated a convergence matrix matching the Strategic Plan of Action on ASEAN Food Security with the Comprehensive Framework of Action (CFA) of the High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis. As you know, the ASEAN Summit in Thailand in February/March 2009 adopted the AIFS Framework and SPA-FS. This Conference is a follow up on the ASEAN Summit Statement on Food Security in the ASEAN Region which called for ASEAN partnership with its Dialogue Partners and the United Nations for cooperation on agriculture and food to implement measures outlined in the AIFS and SPA-FS. The Statement also recommended cooperation with UN specialized agencies to achieve the 1996 World Food Summit Plan of Action, and the objective confirmed by theWorld Food Summit: five years later of 2002 as well as the Declaration of the High-Level Conference on World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy held in 2008. Specifically, this Conference aims at updating the ASEAN-UN convergence matrix and identifying modalities of coordination and monitoring mechanisms.
I would like to take this opportunity to bring to your attention the Asia-Pacific Regional Priority Framework, which essentially translates the FAO global Strategic Framework into regional actions. The just concluded 29th Asia-Pacific Regional Conference considered that such a regional priority framework was necessary to characterize regional needs and encouraged the Regional Office to improve the priority framework through a consultative process involving member countries, FAO country offices in the region, regional organizations, donors and other partners. Accordingly, another major agenda of this Conference is to seek your comments and suggestions on the draft Regional Priority Framework which the Secretariat of this Conference circulated to you earlier. By providing your valuable inputs to the regional priority framework you will not only help us finalize the framework, but more importantly it would lead us to harmonize and synergize the activities of ASEAN and FAO/RAP in addressing the common goal of freedom from hunger and poverty in the region.
In a broader sense, a clear lesson from the food and economic crises is that the region must reform toward a new growth model, which relies more on domestic economic activities rather than export-orientation. Shifting from dependency on exports and creating a balance between export and domestic economic activities will certainly impose pressure on further agricultural sector reform in the region – a trend which requires close attention by all parties present here.
I have a strong belief that Southeast Asia can achieve the ASEAN Vision 2020 which specifically envisioned a socially cohesive and caring ASEAN where hunger, malnutrition, deprivation and poverty are no longer basic problems. We are also confident that strengthened regional solidarity among the countries with varying levels of development will enable the region to turn many crises into an opportunity for evolving a strategy for shared prosperity. Allow me to assure you that FAO intends to closely collaborate with its member countries in ASEAN, the ASEAN Secretariat and other development partners, civil society organizations and the private sector in implementing the Strategic Plan of Action on ASEAN Food Security and offer our policy advice and technical assistance and support to implementation of related initiatives where we have a comparative advantage.
I wish the deliberations of this conference full success.