Almost five years have elapsed since world leaders, meeting at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996, pledged their commitment to achieving food security for all. The participants set themselves the goal of eradicating hunger in all countries, with a quantifiable intermediate target of halving the number of undernourished by 2015. It is now time to take stock of what has been achieved and where we stand today. For this reason, a follow-up meeting, the World Food Summit: five years later, will be held at FAO headquarters in Rome in November 2001. Heads of State and Government will be invited to outline the efforts taken to achieve the goal, review performance to date and agree on measures for accelerating progress.
The road travelled since 1996 has not been easy. In addition to the intrinsic difficulty of achieving the targets set by the Summit, the efforts of even the most determined governments and organizations have often been frustrated by events beyond their control, aggravating the already difficult food security situation. Natural disasters and unfavourable climatic events have taken a heavy toll on many countries. This is especially true in countries where agriculture is the mainstay of the economy and levels of undernourishment are high. A number of droughts, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes have reminded us of the fragility and vulnerability of agricultural production and food security to natural calamities. The latest FAO estimates suggest that the declining trend in the prevalence of hunger has recently come to a near standstill, with approximately 826 million people undernourished. Improvements in some subregions, notably East Asia, have been offset by a deterioration in others, especially sub-Saharan Africa and Central America and the Caribbean.
It is a moral responsibility of all societies, communities and individuals to ensure that hunger is eradicated. It is the suffering endured by the world's hungry that keeps this commitment foremost in our minds, yet increasing recognition is also given to the fact that hunger and malnutrition act as an impediment to economic growth and welfare improvements. This year's issue of The State of Food and Agriculture features a review of the existing evidence on the link between nutrition and productivity and economic growth. While it is perhaps unsurprising that economic growth should have a positive effect on nutrition levels, there is also evidence that, through its effect on human capital development, improved nutrition itself feeds back into higher growth and incomes. Hunger is both a consequence and a cause of poverty. The implication is that public investment to increase agricultural production and facilitate access to food is a sound resource allocation, and it often constitutes a precondition for long-term economic growth and poverty alleviation. Fighting hunger should be considered an initial and vital step towards the alleviation of poverty. As long as there is widespread hunger, little progress can be made in ameliorating other dimensions of poverty, such as a lack of health care and education.
A serious threat to food security today is the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Of the 36 million people infected worldwide, 95 percent are in developing countries. The State of Food and Agriculture 2001 draws attention to the seriousness of the situation, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa - currently the worst-affected region, with 24.5 million of the total number of people infected globally. The human tragedy of the epidemic is accompanied and amplified by the serious negative economic impacts it creates. It deprives agriculture as well as other sectors of much-needed labour power and puts heavy demands on the health systems of the affected countries. Thus, development and food security are seriously impaired, as is the ability of governments to manage them.
The five years since the World Food Summit have also seen an enhanced awareness of the complex challenges facing agriculture and conditioning the achievement of global food security and sustainable management of natural resources. Issues include environmental degradation, scarce water resources, the spreading of plant pests and animal diseases, consumer concerns about food safety, and the impact of conflicts, human-caused disasters and climate change.
At the same time, adaptation to the inexorable process of globalization, with its attendant risks and opportunities, is one of the greatest challenges facing all countries, and especially developing countries, today. Some of the risks involved were illustrated by the unexpected emergence and rapid spread of the financial crisis in East Asia in 1997 and 1998. The real challenge for the developing countries is to be able to reap the potentially large benefits that result from participation in open global markets, while limiting their risk of exposure to major external shocks.
Ensuring the full, equitable and beneficial participation of all parties in an open, globalized world system is a shared responsibility. The State of Food and Agriculture 2001 discusses the negotiations on international agricultural trade, which have been launched within the World Trade Organization. Agricultural trade is of particular importance to most developing countries, in their capacity as either exporters or importers, and frequently both. Barriers to agricultural trade still represent a significant obstacle for many of them. While the Agreement on Agriculture resulting from the Uruguay Round has contributed to changes in domestic and trade policy instruments, actual changes in the levels of support and protection to the sector have not been deep enough for the agreement to have a significant impact on world agricultural trade. The complexity of import regimes and the cost of complying with sanitary and phytosanitary standards and technical barriers to trade can constitute insurmountable obstacles, particularly for small developing countries. It is important that these new negotiations lead to greater opportunities for developing countries to participate in international agricultural trade.
The effects of globalization can be numerous and unpredictable. Among the effects that have recently come to the fore is the ease with which numerous plant pests and animal diseases are now able to spread. Plant pests and animal diseases are a permanent threat to crop and livestock producers and can have major economic implications. However, diffusion has in many cases been facilitated by increased and faster trade, expanded trade in fresh products and live animals and the opening of new trade routes. The rapid spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and especially foot-and-mouth disease, which has caused major concern in recent months, are but two significant examples. The economic impact of plant pests and animal diseases is the topic of this year's special chapter, which points to the need for increased regional and international cooperation. In particular, it is important to enhance the capacity of developing countries both for national action and for participation in international collective efforts, not only in their own interest but also in that of the global community as a whole. Given the growing economic and scientific complexity of the issue, it certainly warrants priority attention.
Five years after the World Food Summit, and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, The State of Food and Agriculture reflects on some of the main challenges faced in eliminating world hunger and poverty. The task may be daunting, but so are the numbers of hungry and undernourished people whose fate is dependent on decisive and accelerated action. I am convinced that, with a renewed commitment and determined, concerted effort, the goal of the World Food Summit can be met.