Beirut, Lebanon, 20 - 24 March 2000



Mr President of the Council of Ministers,
Distinguished Ministers,
Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you to the Twenty-fifth FAO Regional Conference for the Near East, which, after 38 years, is once again being held in Lebanon, at the kind invitation of the Government. I should like to express, on behalf of all the delegations and the staff of FAO, our sincere gratitude to His Excellency President Emile Lahoud and to the Government and people of Lebanon for their warm welcome and generous hospitality. Lebanon, with its age-long history, glorious civilization and agricultural tradition, has, under difficult conditions, been able to make significant progress in all spheres of economic activity, and notably in agricultural development.

I should like to thank in particular His Excellency the President of the Council of Ministers for honouring us with his presence at this opening ceremony.

(State of food and agriculture in the world)

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The world is undergoing a rapid pace of globalisation, and inter-dependence with borders increasingly opened economically.

The estimates for world cereal production in 1999 have recently been revised upwards and now stand at 1872 million tonnes. This is, however, one percent down from 1998, and two percent down from 1997, which was a particularly good year. The only expected increase is for rice, while wheat and other cereal harvests will be lower. For the first time in four years, projected cereal consumption will exceed production. This will require a draw-down of 8 million tonnes from stocks which will therefore amount to 334 million tonnes. Such a level guarantees a stock-to-utilization ratio within the safety margin of 17 to 18 percent.

For these reasons, the 1999/2000 marketing season could register an increase of over three percent in world cereal trade, equivalent to a volume of 222 million tonnes. Yet, cereal prices on world markets are generally lower than last year, a positive factor for the 82 low-income food-deficit countries.

We can also observe an encouraging sign in the fisheries sector, which registered a partial recovery in output in 1999 after the heavy falls in production of the previous year.

But, the most positive factor is the indication in the FAO report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World of a reduction by 40 million, between 1990-92 and 1995-97, of the total number of malnourished people in the developing countries. This annual reduction of about 8 million people on average is encouraging, but it is far below the figure of 20 million required to achieve the objective of the World Food Summit.

(Emergency situations)

Against such a global picture, 35 countries have been faced with food emergencies. At the end of 1999, the number of people affected by food emergencies resulting primarily from natural and man-made disasters was estimated at about 52 million. However, data indicate that their relative frequency has changed over the last thirty years. Whilst in the 1970s and 1980s food emergencies were mainly the result of natural factors, in more recent years man-made disasters have done nothing but increase, especially war, civil strife and financial and economic crises.

In Africa, the emergency situations arise in particular from civil strife and recurrent droughts, whilst in Asia, millions of people have seen their basic access to food eroded by declining purchasing power as several economies were devastated by the financial crisis in 1997/1998. In Latin America, many countries are still suffering from the devastation caused by El Niņo and Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and compounded by the torrential rains and floods of 1999. In addition, late last year, a severe cyclone and extensive floods in Venezuela. In the Near East, the worst drought in decades in 1999 seriously reduced food production in several countries. In this part of the world, in addition to weather fluctuations, the problem of access to water for food production will undoubtedly be the main cause of food supply problems in the future.

The role of FAO in such a context is more important than ever, primarily in assessing the food and agriculture situation, determining food aid needs and informing the international community, thanks to the Global Information and Early Warning System of FAO, which is working together with the World Food Programme, the UNDP and an extensive network of governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Emergency situations also require FAO to revive agricultural production by evaluating needs, in cooperation with other UN agencies in the framework of consolidated appeals for humanitarian assistance and, especially, by providing direct assistance to farmers. In 1999, agricultural assistance implemented by FAO in the Near East amounted to about 132 million dollars, serving 10 countries. This translates as the supply to affected farming communities of agricultural essentials such as seeds, tools, fertilizers, fishing gear and livestock, as well as veterinary supplies. This assistance has been carried out in response to natural disasters, notably the severe drought that last year hit several countries in the Region; the floods and the earthquakes. The Organization has also provided help to farmers suffering from human-induced disruption.

(Other "crises")

But the world is also increasingly faced with other "crises". These relate to the quality and especially the safety of food products, and to the impact of new agricultural techniques, resulting mainly from rapid advances in biotechnology. Recent problems facing governments have included the "mad cow" crisis, the presence of dioxins and listeria in the food chain as well as the marketing of products containing genetically modified organisms.

This is an area where FAO will undoubtedly be called upon to play a greater role. Public opinion, sensitised by the media, wants objective information on possible risks and requires effective measures of protection. While such "crises" have occurred in developed countries, they create concern for the authorities and the populations of developing countries that do not have sufficient capacity of analysis.

The Organization must continue to respond to these challenges and demands. Its appropriate bodies, such as the Commission on Genetic Resources, are actively working on the drafting of codes of conduct. An inter-departmental programme has been initiated to deal with all technical aspects of the issues. The programmes of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques for Food and Agriculture will be reinforced to increase their contribution in these areas. As for questions of ethics, these are being examined by an internal committee supported by a panel of experts. Finally, the Codex Alimentarius remains the leading instrument for determining international standards - a crucial activity in a context of globalization and growing trade.

While recognizing the importance and urgency of these issues, FAO must nevertheless concentrate on ensuring that information provided is scientifically based and established by internationally recognized experts.

(State of food and agriculture in the Near East Region)

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish now to focus on the Near East Region. The Region is becoming increasingly more dependent on food imports particularly cereals, dairy products, sugar and vegetable oil. Most countries of the Region have pursued in 1998 and 1999, with varying degrees of intensity, programmes of reform, especially macro-economic reform, and agricultural market liberalization and deregulation policies. In addition, an economic cooperation endeavor took place through the establishment of the Arab Free Trade Area (AFTA) which was signed by 18 countries in 1998. The main objective of AFTA is trade liberalization for encouragement and promotion of intra-regional trade through the gradual reduction of tariffs, reaching the target of 19 per cent after ten years. In addition, several Mediterranean countries have concluded trade agreements with the European Union.

Agricultural production in the Region has been seriously affected by a number of internal and external factors particularly natural hazards, civil strife, wars and climatic changes. The two devastating droughts that hit several countries of the Region in 1997 and 1999 impacted negatively on agricultural and livestock production.

Since 1997, FAO has implemented the agricultural component of the Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq with original allocation of 46.15 million dollars. In 1999, FAO was entrusted with implementing the same agricultural component worth of 128.4 million dollars in the three northern Governorates of Iraq. Such responsibility included international procurement, as well as distribution with equity to beneficiaries of a wide variety of inputs in all sub-sectors of agriculture and livestock in the country. In addition, FAO is executing assistance projects in Iraq funded by the donor community, UNDP and FAO's Technical Co-operation Programme for the control of animal diseases and the aerial control of crop pests as well as for increasing seed and honey production in the whole country.

Almost all easily accessible conventional water resources in this Region have already been committed; therefore the future emphasis must be directed to increasing the efficiency of water management systems, as well as to move seriously towards tapping new non-conventional water resources to be utilized for increasing agricultural production. Water policies in the Region are increasingly, but slowly, being reformed towards enhanced water demand management. This implies the promotion of satisfactory operation and maintenance by institutions in order to ensure conservation and quality, but it also means addressing the crucial issue of attaching some economic value to water use in agriculture. Every effort ought to be paid to increase the stakeholder's participation in the responsible water management decisions, in order to utilize water more efficiently.

Only in few countries of the Region are agricultural exports important sources of foreign exchange earnings. Generally, exports of agricultural commodities assume a limited role in the total value of the Region's exports - averaging only about 6 percent of the total exports - and consist mainly of fish, fruits, vegetables and cotton. On the other hand, the value of agricultural imports has continued to be as high as thrice the value of exports. Intra-regional trade remains low - not more than 8 per cent of the total foreign trade - stagnating at this level for several years.

(Highlights of FAO activities in the Near East Region)

The food security situation continues to be of concern to many countries of the Region. In spite of the commendable efforts of several countries, notably with the support of FAO, the situation remains serious. In this connection, the Organization has assisted countries in the Region to focus on a number of major food and agricultural production improvements - particularly in the areas of water management, yield increases and more equitable accessibility of food to the majority of the peoples.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Special Programme for Food Security

As you know, FAO launched the Special Programme for Food Security in 1994 after its unanimous approval by the Council. The Programme is designed to assist low-income food-deficit countries to rapidly increase food production and productivity on a sustainable basis, reduce the year-to-year variability of production, and improve access to food, as a contribution to equity and poverty alleviation. To date, over 75 developing countries have requested to participate in the Programme. The lessons learned and results obtained so far have led to the extension of on-going country programmes and a rapid incorporation of new countries. I am pleased to report that by January 2000, the Programme was operational in 55 countries, including 5 countries in the Near East.

Within the context of the Special Programme for Food Security, the Organization has followed up with the implementation of the trilateral cooperation among Near Eastern countries, other developing countries and FAO, in accordance with the provisions of the South-South Cooperation initiative.

Training programme for multilateral trade negotiations

FAO has also continued its efforts in supporting countries of the Region to assess the implications of the World Trade Organization trade negotiations on agricultural development and achieving sustainable food security. Some 14 countries of the Region are presently members of the WTO, and six others have applied for membership. As most of the countries in the Region are relatively dependent on trade, there is a growing need to understand the forces that influence international trade in agriculture. Yet, most countries of the Region still do not have the capacity to meet effectively the challenges or take advantage of the opportunities flowing from the Uruguay Round Agreements while also preparing themselves for the next round of multilateral trade negotiations.

FAO has been providing technical assistance to several countries of the Region on formulating and implementing their national commodity policies and programmes. Recently, FAO has launched an "Umbrella Programme for Training on Uruguay Round and Future Multilateral Trade Negotiations on Agriculture", and organized 14 sub-regional training workshops, two for the Near East Region: the first was held in Cairo in September 1999, and the second is scheduled for May 2000 in Muscat.

Meanwhile, FAO continues to provide information on and make assessments of the global market situation and the outlook for some 80 agricultural commodities.

Food insecurity and vulnerability information and mapping system

A vast effort is also under way to establish the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping System, as decided at the World Food Summit. This system is being set up at international and particularly national level, with the full cooperation of United Nations system partners within the framework of an inter-agency committee. The system contributes to the design and implementation of appropriate policies and programmes to combat poverty and food insecurity. Two countries in the Region have already requested assistance in establishing national systems.

Regional Economic and Technical Cooperation

FAO supports and encourages collective action in dealing with common problems and joint utilization of resources for the mutual benefits of all countries concerned. It has thus encouraged the development of regional projects and the establishment of networks and associations of agricultural institutions for the promotion of technical cooperation and the exchange of experience and information. The Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries provides one such framework for promotion of cooperation based on mutuality of interests, shared benefits and interdependence. In this context, FAO has continued to strengthen efforts for collaboration with international, bilateral, multi-lateral donors and regional specialized funding agencies such as the Islamic Development Bank, Arab Fund for Social Economic Development and other regional and national development funds. FAO will continue its efforts in this direction.

Regional Strategies for Agricultural Development and Food Security

The Organization has steadily expanded its co-operation with Regional and Sub-Regional Economic Groupings of developing countries and countries with economics in transition. In this context and in collaboration with the relevant regional and sub-regional institutions, it is elaborating regional strategies for agricultural development and food security designed to promote sustainable agricultural and food production, better access to food, food safety, and the enhancement of trade in food and agricultural products. Each regional strategy draws extensively on the findings, conclusions and recommendations in the Strategies for National Agricultural Development - Horizon 2010 which were prepared in follow-up to the World Food Summit.


Within the framework of World Food Day, FAO launched TeleFood in 1997 which is a global campaign to raise public awareness of the plight of the 790 million hungry people in the world. It also helps to raise funds to finance small-scale projects aimed at improving the productivity and living standards of rural poor farmers in developing countries. Since then many national media outlets of Member Nations of the Region, especially satellite channels, have joined hands with FAO in promoting TeleFood's objectives. At the regional level, Arab Radio and Television (ART) and the Arab News Network (ANN) were among the leading Pan-Arab operators that have promoted the goals of TeleFood in this Region. A very successful celebrity auction organized by FAO and ART was held in Cairo on 19 October, 1999.

TeleFood funded projects are currently being implemented in at least 12 countries of the Near East Region. In addition, a number of project proposals are under preparation for implementation in the near future.

(Parallel meetings to the Twenty-fifth FAO Regional Conference)

I am pleased to point out that parallel to this Twenty-fifth Regional Conference, two other main gatherings of high relevance to the Region food security have been convened. The first is a forum for the regional non-governmental organizations and civil society, while the other is on intra-regional trade.

Non-governmental organizations play an important role in the rural and agricultural development of our Members Nations. The engagement of NGOs and civil society in the World Food Summit was much valued and added to the strength of the Plan of Action which in turn calls for collaborative efforts from all sectors of society to achieve the objectives set in Rome. Against this background, FAO decided to organize the NGO/Civil Society Consultation in parallel to its Regional Conferences with the view of benefiting from these active players' experiences in fields relevant to FAO mandate and to help the organization formulate its policy and strategy in cooperating with grass roots organizations. The recommendations of the NGO/Civil Society Consultation will be submitted to this body for consideration.

In conjunction with the Conference, there will be a consultation on intra-regional trade in the Near East. This consultation will focus on major issues relating to the fostering of cooperation among the countries of the Region to facilitate trade to bring about national agricultural development and food security.

(Agenda of the Regional Conference)

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

This Twenty-fifth Regional Conference will examine the key issues relating to the fight against food insecurity and vulnerability, poverty and degradation of the natural resource base. The major issues on your agenda include:

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Your Regional Conference will have to take up the challenge of fighting hunger and poverty on the continent. I therefore await the outcome of your deliberations with great interest and wish you every success in your work.

Thank you.