ROME, 23 September 2002 -- A high-level Consultation on Agricultural Information Management (COAIM) opens today at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) headquarters in Rome.

The Consultation (23-25 September 2002) brings together policy-makers, funding agencies and major players in all the relevant fields of agricultural information. Its main objective is to improve the capacities of decision-makers, professionals and the public at large to access and use agricultural information.

High-ranking officials from the Agriculture Ministries of FAO Member Countries, representatives from other UN organizations, specialized agencies and intergovernmental organizations will participate in the debate or attend as observers.

With agriculture in the 21st century moving rapidly away from an artisanal, labour extensive, traditional activity towards a sophisticated, information intensive sector of the global economy, access to information and modern communication technologies has become a necessity for the world's farmers, especially in developing countries, according to FAO.

The agriculture of the future will entail more efficient and sustainable production systems, making optimal use of land, water and other natural resources. Sustainable food production will rely more and more on agricultural information management and communication technologies.

In this context, information exchange aimed at enhancing food security will be essential to all concerned: the government, the private sector, the academic community, farmer organizations and civil society in general, FAO experts say.

"Information has become a political issue. It is essential for markets, prices and food security. COAIM will focus on how FAO can better help its Member Countries to access, analyse and use information for food security and sustainable agricultural production," WAICENT manager Francisco Perez-Trejo, said.

WAICENT, the World Agricultural Information Centre, is FAO's strategic framework on agricultural information management.

"Thanks to Internet, information is available worldwide, but it doesn't mean that the people are well informed. That's what makes information management so important," according to Perez-Trejo.

COAIM will discuss, among other issues, ways and means to close the "digital divide" between rich farmers in developed countries and poor rural communities in developing countries through better information exchange and innovative uses of modern communication technologies that can increase food production in environmentally sound and sustainable ways.

Rural people are particularly affected by the "digital divide" in the present context of globalization. They are handicapped by the lack of communication infrastructure in their areas. To prevent a widening of the gap between urban and rural populations, public funding will be required to match private investments in bringing radio, television and information technology into rural areas. An estimated US$100 million per year would be required for this, according to the Anti-Hunger Programme presented last June by FAO to its Member States.

The agenda of COAIM also includes key topics such as producing operational mechanisms for the implementation of FAO's mandate related to food and agricultural information management; improving the coordination of capacity building efforts; addressing issues related to creating guidelines and standards; and other efforts proposed by FAO to increase the flow of information and communication. In addition, the Consultation will convene special meetings on key aspects of information networks and specialized systems such as FAOSTAT.

The first COAIM took place in Rome in June 2000. Two years later, it is expected that discussions will strengthen its role as an international mechanism for policy dialogue on agricultural information management.