30 June 2003, Geneva/Rome -- Agricultural institutions urgently need to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which continues to ravage many rural areas in developing countries, jeopardizing the human right to food of millions of people, according to FAO and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf and UNAIDS Executive Director Dr Peter Piot presented a new joint FAO/UNAIDS report in Geneva today, which calls upon agricultural institutions to scale up their efforts to fight the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. The report was presented on the occasion of the UN Economic and Social Council's (ECOSOC) 2003 session, being held in Geneva until 25 July.

Close to 30 million of the 42 million people living with HIV/AIDS are in sub-Saharan Africa, over half of them in rural areas.

In 2002, around 5 million more people were infected with HIV/AIDS, most of them living in low-income, food-deficit countries. The epidemic claimed more than 3 million lives last year, most of them young breadwinners, the UN agencies said.

According to FAO, AIDS has killed around 7 million agricultural workers since 1985 in the 25 worst-hit African countries. The epidemic could kill 16 million more by 2020. Food consumption has been found to drop by 40% in households affected by HIV/AIDS.

"The majority of African countries worst-hit by HIV/AIDS are also those heavily reliant on agriculture", said Dr Piot. "For many rural households in these countries, AIDS has turned what used to be a food shortage into a food crisis."

"Hunger and poverty, aggravated by HIV/AIDS, create a vicious spiral," Dr Diouf said. "Where farmers and their families fall sick, they cultivate less land and shift to less labour-intensive and less nutritious crops, agricultural productivity decreases and hunger and malnutrition are on the rise. Many children are losing their parents before learning how to farm, to prepare food and to fend for themselves. Severe malnutrition among orphans is already reported in the worst-affected areas."

The role of Ministries of Agriculture

The FAO/UNAIDS report, entitled "Addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS on ministries of agriculture: focus on eastern and southern Africa", highlights the impact of HIV/AIDS on Ministries and emphasizes the important role they must play to address the existing food security challenges.

The report presents data demonstrating how Ministries of Agriculture have become victim to HIV/AIDS. In Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture, for example, in the last five years, an estimated 58% of all staff deaths were caused by AIDS, while some 16% of staff in Malawi's Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation are living with the disease.

The illness and death of people working for Ministries and rural institutions are undermining the capacity of governments to respond adequately to the epidemic, the report said. The impact of HIV/AIDS is often underestimated, making it increasingly more difficult for Ministries of Agriculture to deliver services and to cope with the crisis. Raising awareness about HIV/AIDS among ministerial staff should therefore become a main priority, the report recommended.

In addition, Ministries of Agriculture and rural institutions should urgently address the implications of HIV/AIDS on agriculture in their core policies and programmes. The needs of a growing number of elderly, women and children in rural areas assuming tasks previously performed by young adults will have to be taken into account. "A shift is needed from a production- to a client-based approach," the study said.

Budgets need to reflect the costs of AIDS

The UN organizations also recommended that the budgets of Ministries of Agriculture should reflect the direct and indirect costs of HIV/AIDS and the need for response measures. "Unless HIV/AIDS features in Ministries of Agriculture budgets, it is unlikely that measures to address the HIV epidemic willbe introduced in core agricultural policies and activities," the study said.

UNAIDS's response to the food crisis focuses on strengthening families and communities to cope with the impact of HIV/AIDS, and supporting longer-term national AIDS programmes to provide AIDS prevention, care and treatment. "Supporting women is also key given that they account for around 50% of the agricultural workforce in Southern Africa," said Dr Piot. "When a woman dies, household food security plummets, because she is central to feeding the family. Women must have access to health care and education, credit schemes, and equality in employment and inheritance rights," he said.

FAO is currently formulating pilot projects that will test labour-saving techniques and low-input agriculture in African and Asian communities where a large portion of agricultural workers have died due to AIDS.

"Lighter ploughs and tools that can be used by older children, women and the elderly and improved seed varieties that require less labour for weeding need to be developed," Dr Diouf said. "Seeds that can be planted at different times of the year will give farmers more flexibility in periods of acute labour shortage. Techniques, or varieties, that cut down the time needed to weed, can reduce women's labour. Women also need equal rights to land, credit and education."

FAO is developing and strengthening policies and programmes to support rural communities by reducing their vulnerability to the impact of HIV/AIDS. It focuses on food security, nutrition, strengthening social and economic safety nets, capacity building, addressing the needs of rural orphans and vulnerable children and enhancing gender equality. Most recently, FAO has assisted more than 250 000 families in southern Africa hit by drought and HIV/AIDS.

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53105

Anne Winter
Manager, Communications and Public Information, UNAIDS
(+41) 22 791 4577