If the overarching goals for which FAO was established remain valid and unchanged today, the context in which the Organization operates, and consequently the priorities for action, continue to evolve, along with the need to seize new opportunities. The possibilities for harnessing knowledge and promoting its sharing will continue to increase in the coming years, in line with the rapid evolution of communications technology. Emphasis will need to be shifted more towards ensuring that the benefits of urbanization, globalization and the rapid transformation of food systems accrue to both consumers and producers, and particularly to the neediest members of society. The emergence of new institutions in areas relevant to FAO's mandate, and the growth in institutional capacities and skills in developing countries, will require the Organization to change its approach in significant ways in order to meet different needs and requests by Members. The renewed commitment to investment in the rural sector will open new avenues for poverty reduction and economic growth. However, efforts will have to be intensified to deal with familiar and new forms of natural and human-induced disasters and to increase emergency preparedness, if the benefits achieved are not to be lost in vulnerable countries as a result of conflict and cataclysmic events that may wipe out the results of years of development work.
Progress in agriculture, as in most fields of human endeavour, is the result of inventiveness and the spread and application of knowledge of how to do things better. The most vivid expression of this process has been the spread of crop species from their places of origin to other parts of the world, where they have frequently become staple foods or important sources of export earnings - a process that gained momentum during the great period of exploration of the fifteenth century but that still continues.
FAO's founders recognized that one of the principal functions of the Organization would be to add momentum to the processes of sharing knowledge. "The time has come", they wrote, when "an international organization is urgently needed to accelerate throughout the world the advance of scientific knowledge and its application to human affairs. FAO would fulfil such a function in the great and important area represented by food and agriculture." A large part of FAO's work continues to be concerned with knowledge sharing and building capacities to use knowledge. Yet much knowledge of great potential relevance to farming, fishing and forestry remains localized and unintentionally inaccessible.
Remarkable developments in the field of information and communication technology (ICT) open up exciting opportunities for greatly accelerating the flow of knowledge, making it much more widely available and, often, enriching it in the process. FAO must take full advantage of these developments, maximizing the potential of ICT to shape the way in which the Organization conducts its business. If it is not to be left behind in an ever more interconnected world, FAO needs to do much more to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities that ICT developments provide for an organization operating on a global basis. But the Organization must become more than a mere broker of knowledge and must contribute to a clearer understanding of the priorities for knowledge generation, particularly in areas in which there are no appropriable benefits for the private sector, for it is here that the biggest gaps are bound to occur.
While the rapid growth of cities has been forecast quite accurately, the pace with which global food-trading systems are being transformed has taken most observers by surprise. Within only a few years international commodity trading has become dominated by a limited number of transnational corporations and there has been a comparable concentration of corporate power in the food-processing and agricultural-inputs supply industries. Still more rapid has been the emergence of supermarket chains as the major food retailers serving the urban populations of both developed and developing countries. This transformation is creating new types of relationships among producers, intermediaries and consumers. If operating under competitive market conditions, these new systems should reduce transaction costs in the food chain and hence bring important benefits to both consumers and producers, though they are bound to cause short-term hardship for those countries and populations that cannot adapt sufficiently rapidly to the new opportunities and adjustments in trading conditions. These benefits, however, are bound to be elusive when free international trade is obstructed by tariff and non-tariff barriers that limit market access for those who can produce with comparative advantage and that artificially raise prices for consumers, or by measures that penalize the import of processed goods vis-à-vis raw materials.
FAO's Members will increasingly look to the Organization for capacity-building assistance to enable them to participate effectively in the evolving and increasingly complex international trading system and to apply the quality and consumer protection standards to which internationally traded agricultural and food products must increasingly conform. They will require help in formulating development and adjustment policies to ensure that the transformation processes do not have a negative impact on the poor, but rather help them overcome chronic and temporary hunger and malnutrition. They will need to plan and invest in new infrastructure - roads, ports, storage systems - in order to become more competitive in the international marketplace. At the global level, the design and implementation of additional instruments, such as codes of conduct, may become even more important as a means of curbing behaviour that may not be in the public good and that risks undermining progress towards poverty and hunger reduction.
Since FAO was founded, new institutions have emerged in areas relevant to the Organization's mandate, building up experience and specialized skills that in many cases now greatly outstrip the Organization's own capacities. Some of these form part of the international system, others have grown up within universities, and there has been a rapid expansion of investment in research and development within the private sector. As a result, there are a number of topics in which FAO needs to shift its approach from seeking leadership to developing substantive links with these centres of excellence as well as between them, in line with its role and comparative advantage as a catalyst for development.
The emergence of regional and subregional economic integration organizations also provides further opportunities for FAO to develop partnerships that can amplify its impact. These organizations are assuming a higher level of political visibility; are becoming in many cases important players in agricultural development, food security and trade facilitation; and enjoy a comparative advantage in addressing transboundary issues, including those related to the harmonization of policies. The Organization needs to gear itself up, especially through further decentralization, to expand its cooperation with these organizations.
The changes, noted earlier, in the respective roles of the state, the private sector and civil society call for FAO to broaden and deepen its links beyond its traditional partners in the public sector and to engage more effectively with NGOs, the private sector, parliamentarians, chambers of agriculture and commerce, local government entities, professional associations and religious leaders. Moves in this direction have found their expression in the creation - in partnership with IFAD, WFP and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) as well as international NGOs - of the International Alliance Against Hunger (IAAH) and its support for National Alliances Against Hunger in both developing and developed countries.
Finally, there has been an impressive growth in technical skills and institutional capacities in almost all developing countries. Apart from reducing the demand for long-term technical assistance involving large teams of internationally recruited experts, this has opened up exciting opportunities for expanding South-South Cooperation programmes and facilitating an increase in cross-country training and collaborative research opportunities. It has also altered the mix of skills on which countries would wish to draw when looking to FAO for assistance.
After many years of declining investment in agriculture and rural development by developing country governments, international financing institutions (IFIs) and donors, the tide appears to be turning. In July 2003, for instance, Heads of State of the African Union committed their countries in the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security to allocate "at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources" for the implementation of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). In other regions, including the ACP countries of the Caribbean and the Pacific, as well as Asia, Latin America and the Near East, regional organizations have also been creating programmes that will ensure a greater share of development investment benefits rural areas. At the international level, following the Monterrey Consensus that emerged from the International Conference on Financing for Development in March 2002, the Gleneagles Communiqué, issued at the end of the G8 meeting held in July 2005, put on record the commitments of many developed countries - including the 25 countries of the European Union, as well as Japan and Canada - to double aid within five years. During their September 2005 meetings, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank both reached agreement to cancel the debts owed to them by 18 developing countries and opened up the prospect of extending similar arrangements to many more of the poorest countries.
The role of agriculture, forestry and fisheries in contributing to sustainable development has for too long been understated. Promoting increased investment in these sectors has been a major thrust of FAO's advocacy over the past decade, in Quebec in 1995 on the occasion of the Organization's 50th anniversary, in Monterrey in 2002, in Maputo in 2003 and at the UN Economic and Social Council in 2005. With the signs that the downward trend in resources has finally been arrested, FAO will need to equip itself better to assist its members in mobilizing and making good use of these additional investment and technical cooperation resources, targeting its efforts even more specifically towards helping developing member countries to formulate strategies and policies to address their most pressing problems of poverty and food insecurity, and to mobilize resources internally and externally to implement programmes on a suitable scale.
The Organization must be able to engage more fully in assisting countries in drawing up Poverty Reduction Strategies that take full note of the key contributions of the agriculture sector and improvements in food security to poverty reduction and economic growth, in taking up related policy reforms and in preparing National Food Security Programmes within the broader context of programmes to achieve the MDGs. These efforts must be accompanied by a shift in FAO's relationship with multilateral and bilateral donors in which emphasis is placed on developing partnerships around the common goal of raising additional resources for agriculture and food security in member countries, rather than seeking extrabudgetary resources primarily for FAO's own programmes.
Emergencies affecting agriculture and food availability seem poised to become more frequent and larger in scale during the course of this century. This is partly because of the human-induced degradation of ecosystems - for instance the destruction of coastal belts of mangroves to make way for intensive shrimp farming or for real estate development that leaves coastal communities less protected against storms, or the degradation of rangelands through overgrazing, opening the way for desertification. Many observers of climate change predict greater extremes in meteorological conditions and long-term changes in weather patterns that will require fundamental adjustments to farming systems in many regions of the world. Moreover, the processes of globalization, especially the rapid increases in the number of people travelling over long distances and in the movement of goods across boundaries and oceans, are accelerating the spread of animal and plant pests and diseases as well as of invasive species, whether weeds or jelly fish, which can multiply with great rapidity in the absence of natural enemies. The human impact of shocks is also greatest when people lack resilience because of their poverty or food insecurity; hence, investments that address the root causes of vulnerability are bound to reduce the scale of emergencies - and the huge costs of addressing them - when disasters strike.
FAO will continue to be called upon to respond to such emergencies. Its greatest comparative advantage lies in improving prediction, early detection and, where this is possible, prevention, of emergencies, especially when dealing with threats that have transboundary or global dimensions requiring international solutions. Member Nations are increasingly recognizing that timely preventative action is often a great deal cheaper and less socially disruptive than allowing problems such as food shortages, foot-and-mouth disease, desert locusts or avian influenza to build up to a scale that becomes life-threatening, requires enormously expensive interventions and induces massive economic losses. This recognition, however, has still to be translated into funding for preventative measures on the necessary scale.