Contents - Next

As we get closer to a new millennium, I believe the time has come for a global mobilization to address the biggest problems of today's world: hunger and food insecurity. It is in this spirit that I took the initiative of convening a World Food Summit for November 1996, which will gather in Rome heads of state and government from all regions in the world.

Our expectations of this meeting are, first, to attract the world's attention to the fact that, in spite of major increases in global food production, hunger and malnutrition are still massively present in our contemporary world. The day-today human suffering and devastation caused by this scourge are far greater in scale than those caused by any war, epidemic or natural disaster, yet too few people have any precise perception of the nature and magnitude of the problem. Although ours is an "information age", food insecurity tends to attract media coverage only when exceptional events bring to light some of its most dramatic manifestations.

Second, the Summit will convey the fundamental message that the deaths and suffering associated with food insecurity are as unnecessary as they are intolerable. The end of hunger and malnutrition, far from being a utopian or poet's dream, is within the reach of our modern society's technology, resources and understanding of the underlying problems. Recent history offers outstanding examples to show that even massive and extreme food insecurity problems can be overcome.

Finally, understanding and awareness of this global problem must translate into broad support of and commitment to effective policy action. The Summit will provide an occasion for country representatives at the highest political level to examine the various dimensions of world food security and adopt a number of basic principles and commitments, as well as a plan of action. I am confident that the Summit will meet the hopes and expectations of millions of people and provide the impulse and inspiration for a major mobilization towards food security for all.

FAO is making a special effort to provide the Summit with adequate information and analytical support on the multiple conceptual, technical and policy dimensions of the food problem. As a further contribution to the debate, food security will be the theme of a comprehensive review in the 1996 issue of The State of Food and Agriculture.

The theme of food security is also prominent throughout this year's edition of The State of Food and Agriculture. Within widely differing situations and developments, the general picture emerging from this report is one of encouraging progress in many areas that directly or indirectly benefit food and agriculture. Indeed, the year 1994-95 has seen a strengthening of world economic recovery after the slowdown of 1990 to 1993; further progress in economic liberalization and reform in many countries; a recovery in international commodity prices that has provided many agricultural exporting economies with the foreign exchange earnings that will, it is hoped, enable them to consolidate the basis for sustained growth. These welcome developments in the global environment, together with a number of important achievements in individual regions and countries, configure what will probably be remembered as a period of opportunity and hope for many countries in the developing world.

Yet, least of all can we afford complacency. Along with the new opportunities, old problems and new risks emerge. The turbulence in financial markets of late 1994 was a reminder of the way market perceptions and economic situations can change in the face of persisting economic imbalances. There is a global economic recovery under way - but millions of people, mainly in African countries that are less well integrated into the world economy, are yet to see its benefits. While we must welcome important advances in macroeconomic and sector policy reform, the poor are particularly vulnerable in the short and medium term even to changes that are expected to benefit them in the long term. The windfall gains from stronger commodity prices represent financial relief and a developmental opportunity for agricultural exporters, but this period cannot be expected to last for long and the windfalls must be seen in the context of the previous protracted decline in real commodity prices and the deep structural imbalances in agricultural markets. Agriculture has benefited from the improved economic environment in many countries, yet production performances have remained inadequate in much of the developing world and some countries, no less than 15 of which are in Africa, are currently facing severe food shortages. Furthermore, the recent tightening in cereal markets and the prospect of declining government stocks in the major exporting countries, raise again the issue of the adequacy of such stocks in a global food security context. These developments coincide perversely, and disquietingly, with a trend towards reduced flows of food aid and external assistance to agriculture.

The problems in agricultural markets are the central theme of this year's special chapter, Agricultural trade: towards a new era?, an issue that also has major direct and indirect food security implications. This report points out that agricultural trade has expanded considerably in the past decades giving consumers access to more, better and cheaper food, while also being an important source of employment and foreign exchange. However, the gains from agricultural trade have been extremely uneven and markets remain plagued by distortive intervention and protection.

These issues are discussed against the background of the major changes in the economic, institutional and market environment for agricultural trade in the recent past. It is suggested that a "new era" may be emerging with the deregulation of the world economy, the increasing presence of the developing countries in world markets, the major transformations in the former centrally planned economies, the movement towards regional trade arrangements and changes in the world trade markets and rules following the conclusion of the Uruguay Round. Furthermore, this report addresses the complex and controversial issue of how trade interacts with environmental protection and the sustainability of production.

The trading order that will emerge from such an increasingly complex interplay of factors and influences is difficult to foresee. We may expect that a more liberal and integrated environment will boost trade, encourage efforts towards competitiveness and generate welfare overall. However, the impact of the Uruguay Round might turn out to be small in the short term and is likely to have uneven effects across countries and specific markets. Current expectations are for little change in the international prices of tropical products and somewhat higher prices for temperate products, indicating an asymmetric distribution of opportunities, risks and losses in the various situations. Furthermore, in spite of the general move towards more open and disciplined trading regimes, protectionism in traditional and new forms is likely to continue plaguing agricultural markets. Thus, food-deficit countries are likely to face higher import costs and the poorest of them possibly greater food insecurity, at least initially, while market access and competitiveness will remain difficult problems for many developing countries, even those that are better endowed for agricultural production and exports.

It is my hope that this report will contribute to greater awareness of not only the new opportunities, but also the old and new problems and uncertainties that will have to be faced by the international community in the "new era" that is unfolding.

Jacques Diouf

Contents - Next