3 July 2003, Rome -- While 80 percent of the people in the countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, the response to the epidemic has come largely from the health sector. But the agricultural sector has an important role to play in reducing people's vulnerability to the disease and its consequences.

To help agricultural policy-makers formulate their own response to the epidemic, FAO has launched a new Web site on HIV/AIDS and food security.

"There is a lot of information available on HIV/AIDS, but not so much on its relationship to agriculture, rural development and food security," says Marcela Villarreal, Chief of FAO's Population and Development Service and the Organization's focal point for HIV/AIDS issues. "We hope this site will contribute to enlarging people's conception of HIV/AIDS and its impact on other development aspects."

A devastating cycle
The impacts of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on poor rural populations are many and intertwined. Entrenched poverty leads to poor nutrition and poor health, making people more vulnerable to infection. Decreased agricultural productivity means less food on the table. And as adults fall ill, health care costs make it harder for families afflicted by the disease to purchase the food they can no longer produce.

But the effects are felt beyond the household level. Loss of agricultural workers affects national food production. In countries where agriculture forms a large part of the gross domestic product, this loss of labour could have a devastating impact on national economies.

And labour is not all that is lost to the disease. When parents die before being able to pass on generations of knowledge about farming and local crop varieties to their children, the prospects for future generations become even dimmer.

In many countries, AIDS is erasing decades of progress in improving mortality figures and extending life expectancies. The average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is now 47 years, when it would have been 62 without AIDS.

The disease also affects women disproportionately. In some areas, women's infection rates are three to five times higher than men's, due to biological factors that make women more vulnerable to the disease and gender inequalities that limit their power to protect themselves. The disease also adds to rural women's workload as they become the primary caregivers to sick family members.

Outlining problems, proposing solutions
The new site outlines the epidemic's wide-ranging impacts, providing key facts and links to additional resources. It also provides concrete activities that staff in ministries of agriculture and rural development can use in formulating their own programmes to alleviate problems caused by HIV/AIDS.

"Funds are available from the World Bank and the Global Fund, but agricultural staff often don't know what kind of activities they can propose," says Ms Villarreal. "The responses section of the site is crucial because it has concrete strategies and activities that they can incorporate into their day-to-day work."

Users will find strategies for introducing labour-saving technologies, preserving knowledge transmission, improving nutrition, promoting gender equality, strengthening rural institutions and enhancing social safety nets. They can also find information on creating monitoring systems to evaluate the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS programmes and on preparing emergency responses to food crises associated with the epidemic.

The approach is wide-ranging, with emphasis on addressing the impacts of HIV/AIDS in all sectors of development.

A centralized source of information
The site brings together for the first time all of FAO's HIV/AIDS-related knowledge and activities, making it a comprehensive resource for researchers, policy-makers, NGOs, and people living with HIV/AIDS, whether they be interested in nutrition, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, gender or other issues.

"People with different interests can link into the information relevant to their work," says Ms Villarreal. "FAO produced its first publication on HIV/AIDS and the agricultural sector in 1988. So the Organization has 15 years' experience on the subject. And now the wealth of that experience can be found in one place."

Links to the HIV/AIDS sites of UN agencies and other organizations are also provided, and users can access a host of FAO and non-FAO publications, listed by subject and date for ease of reference.

The site highlights the latest news and developments in the field and will be updated regularly. Future plans include the creation of an online forum, where NGOs, researchers and others can share information.

The Web site is currently available only in English. Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish versions will be online shortly.

Teresa Buerkle
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 56146