The First FAO E-mail Conference on Fish Trade and Food Security (FTFS) was held between 19 October and 12 December 1998. The Conference had its genesis in a recommendation in 1997 of the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research which identified three topics as deserving particular scrutiny: trade and food security; the distribution of benefits from trade; and barriers to international fish trade.
In response, FAO's Fish Utilization and Marketing Service (FIIU) commissioned three papers, one on each of the particular topics, and those papers were put forward as starting points for discussion in the e-mail conference.
There were over 150 persons on the list of participants, with a significant participation from developing countries. In all, there were 21 formal interventions, plus additional notes and comments from the Secretariat.
MAIN ISSUES DISCUSSED
The discussion centred quickly on various aspects of globalization and the implications for fish trade and food security. It became clear that there existed various interpretations of food security, depending on level of aggregation: local, national, international, regional and global. The lack of a clear definition of "trade barrier" with its various implications was also addressed by many.
Certain topics stimulated more response than others. In particular, issues such as eco-labelling and HACCP, and the need for more market and product development were debated by many participants.
The key arguments stated were the following:
® Several participants stated that, in general, international trade could only marginally solve the food security problem, but that fish trade was necessary for food security for many landlocked countries. There was no firm evidence to show that fish exports were detrimental to food security in the export country as the products exported generally were different from those consumed locally. At the same time, there was no substantial evidence that fish export revenues substantially alleviate poverty problems in the exporting country. Several participants stated, however, that this aspect was more a problem related to distribution of benefits from trade rather than a problem inherent in trade as such.RECOMMENDATIONS ARISING
® Several countries feared that their sovereign right to fishery management might be infringed by eco-labelling schemes. However, eco-labels might be attractive to consumers in some markets but it was in doubt whether consumers were willing to pay enough to cover the costs. If not, the costs would have to be borne by producers. With 50 percent of fish exports coming from developing countries, this fact would have particular consequences for producers in these countries. Some participants stressed that eco-labels must in any case be considered just an additional tool in fisheries management, alongside more traditional controls.
® The introduction of mandatory HACCP schemes for fish exports to the most important markets had had consequences for exporters in developing countries. There was disagreement over whether HACCP could be considered a non-tariff trade barrier, as exporters were able to influence their own position and adapt to the new regulations. Several participants mentioned that trade barriers, even though lower than in the past, remained considerable in many parts of the world, especially for processed fish products.
® Several participants stressed the need for more research into the development of new products to satisfy low-income markets. There was disagreement over whether available processing technologies were insufficient for production of low-cost fish products or whether there were particular causes behind lack of distribution of available products, such as frozen pelagic species. Several participants urged a reduction in use of fish for non-food purposes and a reduction in discards.
® Some participants stressed that subsidies and overcapacity were problems in international fisheries, as were ill-defined property rights to resources in many countries.
It was recommended that the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research seriously consider the possibility of investigating the effects of trade in fish products on those individual countries that were thought to be at risk of uncertain food supplies.
It was recommended that FAO and other international, non-industry organizations attempt, within the resources available, to undertake more market research and stimulate further product development in low-cost fish products, including improvement of traditional production methods such as drying, smoking, curing and freezing.
Participants seemed satisfied with the format and operation of the conference, despite the limitations that it was conducted in English only, a fact that caused several comments. The e-mail conference format was regarded as a cost-effective way to reach a large, dispersive and diverse group of persons with an interest in international fish trade and food security issues. The Secretariat requested suggestions for future activities related to the topic, and proposals were made for similar conferences on related topics. To reach more focused and profound discussions in each theme, suggestions were made to concentrate on one topic for each conference.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
The primary output from the conference was the Proceedings. The commissioned papers, the material in the interventions, together with FAO in-house material, was expected to provide valuable input for further work in analysing the effects of globalization on fish trade and food security.
If funding could be found, FIIU envisioned a second conference to take place in the year 2000. Suggested possible themes for future conferences were:
® fish exports from developing countries in the light of the WTO Agreements of the Uruguay Round;
® recent experiences by developing countries in adapting to changes in fish import regimes in major markets;
® the potential for increased regional fish trade with LIFDCs;
® regional experiences in successful development of new low-cost fish products based on exploitation of improved production technologies; and
® the role of subsidies and their impact on trade.