Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

FOOD-LATAM: FAO Urges Protection of Agricultural Sector

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Mar 3 1998 (IPS) - The director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, urged Latin America Tuesday to protect agricultural production in order to improve food security in the region.

On the last day of his visit to Venezuela, Diouf said countries in the region should learn to use the protectionist tools offered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which prohibits systems of subsidies but not other measures that can be used to assist the sector.

The head of FAO is on a tour through Brazil, Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela, where he arrived Sunday night, to promote activity designed to boost food security, and particularly the goal of halving the number of hungry in the world by 2015.

Senegal’s Diouf said that if industrialised countries protected their agricultural sectors, “I don’t see why developing countries can’t do so.” He pointed out that what the WTO prohibited were measures such as subsidies for exports.

Support for the agricultural sector must emphasise protection of the poorest and smallest farmers, as well as defence of the environment, said Diouf, because food efficiency is based on three priorities: “water, water and water.”

Speaking at a press conference, Diouf rebutted the argument put forth by free market fundamentalists that support for agriculture must be eliminated. But he also criticised those who “confuse food security with food autarky and an award for inefficiency.”

Furthermore, he denied that food security was jeopardised by the massive rural exodus to the cities, a particularly marked phenomenon in Latin America, where 77 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 1995, a proportion expected to rise to 82 percent by 2005.

According to Diouf, three percent of the population of any given country can produce the necessary amount of food, because efficiency is a greater value than the volume of people occupied in food production.

The transfer of the population to the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy “forms part of the natural process of development,” he maintained. But the big problem with migration to the cities, he added, is the lack of jobs to absorb the flow, which pushes up levels of poverty and malnourishment.

Diouf said “it is possible” to achieve the goal of slashing the number of hungry people in the world to 400 million by 2015, down from the 800 million estimated when that commitment was undertaken at the November 1996 World Food Summit in Rome.

The total world population, calculated at 5.9 billion today, is expected to climb to more than eight billion by 2030.

But Diouf stressed that in order to reach that goal, an annual investment of 300 billion dollars would be needed, as well as plans at the national, regional and global levels and the active participation of the private sector in the battle against hunger.

Diouf especially urged that food security plans be focused on peasant women, who produce more than half of the world’s food, and as much as 80 percent in areas like the Caribbean. Moreover, it is women who spend the largest proportion of their incomes on food for the family, far more than men, and who play the key role in food preparation.

But since the 1970s, the number of poor women has increased much more than the number of men living in poverty. Women today account for 70 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion poor persons.

Diouf did not provide specific figures for Latin America, besides indicating that nine countries in the region – Bolivia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Surinam – figured among the 86 low-income countries hardest-hit by food shortages.

Of those nine countries, Bolivia participates in the Special Programme for Food Security, and Cuba is getting ready to do so.

FAO reports indicate that per inhabitant food consumption in Latin America is above the global average, notwithstanding a significant drop in the early 1990s.

Regional per inhabitant consumption averages 2,700 calories, expected to rise to 3,200 calories within the next 10 years. Latin America is also the developing region which makes the largest gross investment in agriculture, calculated at more than 60 billion dollars a year.

Venezuela’s Luis Arias, the pro tempore secretary of the Iberian-American Forum of Agriculture Ministers, said Latin America accounted for around 10 percent of the world’s malnourished people.

Latin America’s goal, he added, is to totally eradicate hunger in the region by 2015, in accordance with a commitment assumed at an August 1997 ministerial meeting held in Venezuela.

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