Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

FOOD-VENEZUELA: The Head of FAO, a Missionary Against Hunger

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Mar 2 1998 (IPS) - The director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, is in Venezuela to kick off the Latin American leg of his worldwide “Food for All” campaign.

The November 1996 World Food Summit set the goal of slashing the number of people suffering from hunger in the world today – estimated at 800 million – in half by the year 2015.

Diouf’s Latin American tour, which began Sunday in Venezuela, will take him to Panama Wednesday. According to FAO, nine of the 86 countries plagued by food shortages are in Latin America and the Caribbean: Bolivia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Surinam.

FAO’s recommendation for Latin America is that 22 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) be dedicated to agriculture in order to attain full food security, the UN body’s regional representative Severino De Melo told IPS on a visit to Venezuela.

Diouf, a Senegalese national who has headed FAO since January 1994, is meeting in Caracas with President Rafael Caldera, other government officials and parliamentarians to assess compliance with the commitments assumed by the world community in November 1996 in Rome.

He is also evaluating the expansion of a special food security programme, agricultural development strategies up to the year 2010, trade in agricultural products, the conservation of genetic resources and South-South cooperation plans in which Venezuela participates.

Another of his aims is to promote the TeleFood Programme, a TV network created to raise awareness about hunger and raise funds for fighting the problem. Under the theme “Food for All”, the network is to be extended globally on Oct. 16, World Food Day, based on the tenet that only a growing commitment by the public as well as private sector can keep the planet from becoming a world of hungry people in the future.

The world population will have soared from today’s 5.7 billion people to eight billion by 2030, while support for agriculture is only shrinking, FAO warns. A single figure serves to illustrate the phenomenon: bilateral and multilateral aid to agriculture plunged from 10 billion to 7.2 billion dollars between 1982 and 1992.

Latin American governments promised last year to go beyond FAO’s global objective and eradicate hunger by 2010 or 2015, a goal De Melo said was possible for most countries, but not all.

FAO figures indicate that 15 percent of the population in the region suffers from hunger today, down from 21 percent two decades ago. An attainable goal for the year 2010 would be for only six percent of the inhabitants of Latin America to be hungry, according to the UN body.

But in order to reach that goal, six percent of GDP would have to go towards agroindustrial processing (storage and transport, among other aspects), 12 percent to production (purchases of seeds and pesticides, for example), and four percent to infrastructure, food distribution and the creation of marketing networks.

Between 20 and 70 percent of the population in the various nations of Latin America depends on agriculture, but the rural sector has a decisive social impact in all countries.

FAO says the key to food security and more equal distribution of food does not lie in financing agriculture, which can be allowed to produce and distribute at market prices, but in financing and subsidising consumer access to sufficient food at affordable prices.

That approach squares with the neo-liberal policies predominant today in the world and the rules laid down by the World Trade Organisation, and coincides with the position adopted by a meeting of agriculture ministers, agroindustrialists and peasant farmers from Iberian-American countries, held last August in Venezuela.

Diouf is visiting a country whose economy is based on oil, but where 14 of 22 states depend on agriculture and rural development. There are a total of around 380,000 farmers and ranchers in Venezuela, 240,000 of whom are small producers (less than five hectares.)

As in the rest of Latin America, the greatest food shortages are concentrated, paradoxically, in the rural sector. Along with the neglect of the countryside caused by the oil boom, hunger triggered a major rural exodus to the cities, where 80 percent of the country’s 23 million inhabitants now live.

Due to its social weight, agriculture has enjoyed a high level of protectionism, a policy that independent analysts say has mainly benefited agrobusiness and large producers.

Protectionism has not translated into reasonably priced food for the population. Consumption of nutrients has fallen dramatically in Venezuela in the 1990s, with a sharpening of the drop in real income – 65 percent in the past 20 years, said Edmonde Saade, president of the Datos polling firm.

Food consumption per inhabitant fell 19 percent in 1997, accentuating the problem of “an underfed population,” she added. Poverty, meanwhile, grew 10 percent that year, and currently affects 69 percent of Venezuelans, according to official figures.

In spite of preferential treatment, meanwhile, agriculture accounted for only 6.2 percent of non-oil GDP over the last 20 years, national Banking Council statistics indicate.

The agricultural sector received 19.8 billion dollars in fiscal spending from 1970 to 1994, far higher than the amount received by tourism, housing or urban development, and equivalent to expenditures on health and defence.

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