29 April 2010, Panama City/Rome- Speaking at a meeting of leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf has stressed the "strategic importance" of agriculture for the social and economic welfare of the region.
"Agriculture has a direct influence on the capacity of countries to deal with the socioeconomic challenges that exist in rural areas", Diouf told countries attending the 31st FAO Regional Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, in Panama City (26-30 April).
The Director-General also noted that responding to climate change, improving rural infrastructure and access to water resources, and strengthening institutional frameworks and financial mechanisms for rural development are crucial tasks in promoting sustainable agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Progress and setbacks in the fight against hunger
Between 1990 and 2006, Latin America and the Caribbean managed to reduce the total number of undernourished from 53 million people to 45 million, Diouf observed. However, since then the ranks of the hungry climbed back to the level that existed in the early 90's.
"Hunger has risen worldwide over the past three years because of insufficient investment in the rural sector, the economic and financial crisis and, in particular, soaring food prices. Unfortunately, Latin America and the Caribbean have not been an exception", he said.
Still, the FAO chief added, "this dramatic situation has, nonetheless, repositioned agriculture and food security at the heart of national and regional development policies and programs, thanks to which, we can face the coming decade with optimism".
One significant development: since 2002, six countries in the region have approved food security laws and parliaments in another ten are debating draft food security legislation, a process in which the FAO-led Hunger Free Latin America and the Caribbean Initiative has played a key role.
Focus on small-scale farmers
At the Panama meeting, FAO member countries are discussing a program of policies aimed specifically at supporting small-scale farming in order to transform this sector into a vital component of the solution to rural poverty and reduce dependency on food imports.
A document presented by FAO proposes that governments do this by boosting domestic staple food markets, increasing small-scale farming's productivity, and implementing risk management mechanisms.
Some such measures have already been put in place by countries in response to soaring food prices.
However, there still a long way to go -- a significant productivity gap exists between small-scale farming and industrial agriculture in the region, according to FAO. At the same time, overall growth in the agricultural sector has not had a proportional impact on the reduction of rural poverty in areas of Latin America and the Caribbean.
To address this, the UN food agency is encouraging policies that adopt an integrated approach to rural development by linking support to small-scale farming with other steps aimed at improving the livelihoods of families left behind by agriculture's modernization process.
FAO Regional Conference
Diouf's remarks came at the start of the Ministerial Session of FAO's Regional Conference, following an inaugural address by the President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli.
A number of high-level delegations from FAO member countries in the region are participating in the meeting. In addition to targeting small-scale farming and rural development and preparing agriculture for climate change, additional topics for discussion include the food security situation in Haiti, FAO reform and the revamping of the Committee on Food Security to include representatives from civil society.
The Regional Conference elected Panama's Minister of Agriculture, Víctor Manuel Pérez, as its chair, and will conclude its work on 30 April with the approval of a final report and the establishment of priority guidelines for FAO's work in the region.