FAO warns of slow progress on sustainable development

A report prepared by FAO for the eighth session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-8) repeats a warning made five years ago about slow progress towards sustainable agricultural and rural development in many countries.

CSD-8 opened in New York on 24 April and runs until 5 May. FAO is Task Manager for two of the four topics being addressed by the Commission: agriculture and land management. This will be the third time that the Commission has reviewed progress related to these issues since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which resulted in Agenda 21.

Peru: Reforestation with Eucalyptus trees planted along the shore of Lake Titicaca

FAO's report, 'Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development', was prepared as a draft of the Secretary-General's report to CSD-8 on the topic, also known as SARD. It covers economic, social and environmental aspects, looking at a wide range of issues.

The report points out that many of the major issues outlined in previous reports are still outstanding, despite pockets of progress in several areas, including integrated pest management, integrated plant nutrition and conservation agriculture. Particular problem areas include land degradation, loss of agro-biodiversity, the impact of climate variability on agriculture, rural poverty and household food security, all of which can be effectively tackled by SARD.

Land degradation threatens food security

"Degradation of agricultural land and decline in soil fertility continue to be major threats to food security and sustainable development in developing countries," the report says. "The problem is most severe in sub-Saharan Africa, where annual average nutrient loss is estimated to be around 24kg/ha and is increasing. In the South Asia region alone, the cost of different forms of land degradation is estimated to US$ 10 billion per year..."

The report mentions one of the solutions now being widely adopted to reverse degradation of agricultural land: conservation tillage. Millions of hectares of land around the world are now planted using conservation tillage methods, which aim to minimize disturbance to the soil. Farmers leave the previous season's crop residue on the soil as a protective mulch, avoid ploughing and sow seeds in a slot just wide enough for them. (Go to FAO's Conservation Agriculture Web site)

In relation to agriculture and food security, the report found that "While the absolute number of hungry has declined or shown fluctuating movement in most developing regions, the figure for sub-Saharan Africa has been consistently rising. And, contrary to other regions, the percentage share of population undernourished in sub-Saharan Africa has barely changed over the past 26 years."

However, the report states that the overall statistics mask progress made by individual countries in overcoming hunger and poverty. "Successful examples show that hunger can be eliminated," it says, "with the right policies and measures that ... improve access to land, combat poverty, create employment and reduce rural emigration."

Falling aid to agriculture

Another major factor limiting progress towards SARD is falling official development assistance (ODA) during the 1990s. Estimates for 1998 indicate that ODA from OECD countries to developing countries and multilateral development agencies rose to US $51.9 billion, reversing several years of decline. But the fall-off in the late 1990s was so sharp that "ODA flows remain about the same now as they were in 1980". Moreover, ODA to the agricultural sector has been declining steadily.

Underlying all the issues and challenges covered by the report is a call for building human capacity, promoting participation by all stakeholders and ensuring good governance. "Good governance," says FAO's Eric Kueneman, Task Manager of the report, "together with the absence of civil conflicts, is a fundamental requisite for sustainable agriculture and rural development."

Land management

FAO also prepared the draft of the Secretary-General's report on integrated planning and management of land resources for CSD-8 and is organizing an expert panel discussion on Global Partnership for Sustainable Land Management: Ensuring Food Security, scheduled for 25 April. The aim of the discussion is to raise awareness about the vital importance of integrated land use planning for sustainable development and economic growth and to identify critical areas for action.

Integrated planning and management of land resources is a key tool in the face of increasing population pressure on land, water and biological resources, the escalating degradation of these resources, and growing threats to the resilience of ecosystems and the global environment.

The report highlights successful land management practices and calls for governments and the international community to set priorities and to combine protection and production objectives. Integrated land management and planning has multiple goals, including protecting the environment and biodiversity, conserving natural resources, promoting economic development, creating employment, eradicating poverty, enhancing food security and ensuring access to land for vulnerable and marginalized people.

The major challenges involved in the integrated planning and management of land resources are:

  • to promote sustainable and productive land use systems,
  • to protect critical resources and ecosystems through balancing land, water and other resource uses and providing a basis for negotiation, participatory decision-making and conflict resolution,
  • to provide an enabling political, social and economic environment for the adoption of sustainable land use systems and practices.

The Task Manager's report on Land Management for CSD-8 stresses the need for effective implementation of the land management goals of Agenda 21 and highlights some priority areas. The pace and magnitude of land-use change is "inducing changes in global systems and cycles that underpin the functioning of ecosystems," the report says. "These changes represent profound and far-reaching environmental threats. Global warming from the build-up of greenhouse gases is the best-known example..."

The report recognizes that progress has been made in some areas. "Improved knowledge of land resources and the environmental and social problems associated with land use ... are leading policy-makers, communities and individuals towards better land management," it says. However, "Efforts so far are inadequate to meet the need for land conservation and rehabilitation, and the increasing threats to ecosystems and resources, especially in developing countries."

25 April 2000

CSD-8 Web site links

Related FAO links

Report of the Secretary General on Integrated Planning and Management of Land Resources (IPMLR)

Fact sheets prepared for CSD-8

Addendum 1 - Combating deforestation

Forestry Department

Addendum 2 - Combating desertification and drought

Desertification Web site

Addendum 3 - Sustainable mountain development

Mountain Programme

Addendum 4 - Conservation of biological diversity

Biological diversity for food and agriculture

Report of the Secretary General on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD)


Addendum 1 - Urbanization and sustainable agriculture development

Food supply and distribution to cities

Addendum 2 - Biotechnology for sustainable agriculture

FAO launches an electronic forum on biotechnology

Addendum 3 - Linkages between agriculture, land and water.

Water resources, development and management service

Background Paper No 6
The coming livestock revolution

Animal production and health division

Copies of a video on Sustainable Development (13 min) are available for TV stations in Betacam.
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