Good News Agency



FAO Director General


by Sergio Tripi


 27 July 2001


 World Bank and IMF, persistent organic pollutants, organic farming, genetically modified organisms, the hunger problem.


 Elected Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations at the end of 1993, Jacques Diouf – Senegalese, Ph.D. in Social Sciences of the Rural Sector from Sorbonne, Paris – appreciates the role of Good News Agency in the creation of a more aware public opinion and agreed to give an interview to its Publisher and Editor, Sergio Tripi.


Sergio Tripi: Food security and the development of the agricultural sector in the world's poorest countries were a major spotlight of discussion at the third UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries that was held in Brussels from 14 to 20 May 2001.  In the last few years the policy of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank  to support the 49 LDC has been corrected substantially, putting a major emphasis on social development rather than on a strict control on those countries’ balance of payment.  Are there joint programmes and/or lines of convergence between those two institutions and the FAO strategic objectives?


Jacques Diouf: FAO has worked in partnership with the World Bank since 1964. This long-standing relationship has been highly productive, with FAO helping its member countries to prepare investment projects for Bank financing and thereby unlock additional resources for development. About one third of all agricultural and rural development projects financed by the Bank each year are prepared under this joint programme to which the Bank contributes 75% of the costs.

FAO and the World Bank also work very closely together on a whole range of technical and strategic issues. One current example is FAO’s work on a Global Farming Systems Study, commissioned by the Bank as a contribution to its revision of its agricultural and rural development strategy. This study, which is looking at the challenges expected to face small farmers throughout the world over the coming 30 years, has drawn on expertise throughout the Organization.

The decision by the World Bank to launch its new agricultural and rural development strategy during the ‘World Food Summit: five years later’ meeting in Rome in November this year is indicative of the strength of the relationship between the World Bank and FAO.


The World Bank has also agreed in principle to respond positively to government requests for financing the expansion of activities launched under FAO's Special Programme for Food Security in Low Income Food Deficit Countries. The first country to benefit from these new arrangements is Madagascar, and several others will follow this year.


Working so closely with the Bank means that we tend to look at development issues from a similar perspective. It is true that both the Bank and the IMF have recently seen poverty alleviation as principally a matter of investing in health and education, and this has been reflected in the guidance which they have been giving to countries engaged in the preparation of poverty reduction strategies. But we are finding that they are receptive to our arguments that getting rid of hunger is a crucial first step in the eradication of poverty. We also sense that there is a growing recognition on their part of the essential role that agricultural development has to play in improving livelihoods of poor families, given that about 70% of the poor live in rural areas.

A further signal of the depth of our cooperation with the Bretton Woods Institutions is FAO's recent admission as an observer in the prestigious Development Committee, where many of the decisions on IMF and World Bank strategies are taken.


The Stockholm Convention concluded its work with the signing on 23 May of a Treaty that bans the Persistent Organic Pollutants. In perspective, how is this treaty going to affect agriculture in the world?


The POPS treaty addresses persistent organic chemicals which are carried over long distances. They accumulate in particular in the arctic regions of the world. At present the following compounds are included: DDT, Aldrin, Dieldrin, Endrin, Chlordane, Heptachlor, Hexachlorobenzene, Mirex, Toxaphene, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Dioxins, and Furans, but other substances may be added in future. The first nine chemicals are pesticides, PCBs are used in electric transformers, and dioxins and furans, are unintended pollutants resulting from inappropriate industrial processes and uncontrolled burning of waste.

The present list of pesticides is of little relevance to agriculture. DDT is practically only used for the control of malaria vectors although there may be some illegal spill-over for agricultural use. The other compounds are of very limited agricultural use: Aldrin and Dieldrin production was stopped years ago (although for some compounds some residual use remains in termite control) but production of these pesticides has nearly completely stopped and alternatives are available.


Organic farming is being increasingly considered by the public opinion as an appropriate response to the over-use of the ‘green revolution’ methods.  Which of these two approaches is going to play a major role in the fight against hunger?


The Green Revolution brought important progress in food production in many developing countries but it must be recognized that Green revolution technologies mostly depend upon external inputs. Often they are too costly or not available for poor farmers if access to credit is difficult.

Organic agriculture favours local food systems and is based upon cheap and locally available resources. Organic agriculture techniques replace external agriculture inputs by environmental goods and services and farmer's management skills and knowledge. Organic agriculture raises farmers' independence from factors over which they have little control (availability of mineral fertilisers, synthetic pesticides and improved seeds/breeds, access to credit) and increases the productivity of traditional systems. In resource-poor areas, organic agriculture is an important alternative in the search for an environmentally sound and equitable solution to the problem of food insecurity.

It should however be observed that if nitrogen fertlilizer application were to originate exclusively from cattle manure, 50% of the current agricultural land would have to be converted to fodder and nitrogen fixing crops and the number of cattle would have to increase by 300% in order to satisfy the demand.

Markets for certified organic food therefore represent 1-2% of total food retails in industrial countries. The demand for certified organic products is however the fasted growing food sector, with a demand increasing of 20% per year.  Provided that producers of developing countries are able to certify their organic products and access international lucrative markets, returns from organic agriculture can contribute to food security by increasing incomes.


There is an increasing concern worldwide for the threat of genetically modified organisms. This concern is mainly due to possible dangerous side effects. How much time and what methods of research would be necessary to experiments GMO fully? What is the FAO position on this subject?


It is not possible to make sweeping generalizations about GMOs. FAO supports a science-based evaluation system that would objectively determine the benefits and risks of each individual GMO. This calls for a cautious, case-by-case approach, assessing the environment and food safety of each product or process prior to its release. The evaluation process should also take into consideration experience gained by national regulatory authorities in clearing such products. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products and processes is also essential to ensure their continued safety to human beings, animals and the environment. The recently adopted Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity provides a framework to develop internationally agreed standards for risk assessment. The Codex Alimentarius, which Secretariat is hosted by FAO and WHO, is currently developing standards for risk assessment of genetically modified food.


The other widespread objection to genetically modified food, equally important for the public opinion, is that it leaves too much power into the hands of few multinational corporations and it leaves the farmers in the developing countries dependent from them even for the purchase of seeds, that would not be naturally produced any more by crops resulting from GMO. Is this true and, if so, how could this situation be rectified?


Current investment in biotechnological research tends in fact to be concentrated in the private sector and oriented towards agriculture in higher-income countries.  In view of the potential contribution of biotechnologies to increase food supply and overcome food insecurity and vulnerability, FAO considers that efforts should be made to ensure that developing countries, in general, and resource-poor farmers, in particular, have the possibility to benefit from relevant biotechnological research results, while continuing to have access to a diversity of sources of genetic material.

This needs to be addressed through increased public funding and dialogue between the public and private sectors. FAO continues to assist its member countries, particularly developing countries, to develop the capacity to reap the benefits derived from the application of adequate and safe biotechnologies in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. The Organization also assists developing countries to participate more effectively and equitably in international commodities and food trade. FAO provides technical information and assistance, as well as socio-economic and environmental analyses, on major global issues related to new technological developments.


Next November FAO will hold the World Food Summit. At the previous Summit in 1996, the Plan of Action agreed upon contained seven commitments on part of governments, which were expected to lead to significant reductions in chronic hunger. And already in December 1992, the Joint FAO/WHO International Conference on Nutrition declared that “hunger and malnutrition are unacceptable in a world that has both the knowledge and the resources to end this human catastrophe”. Why does the hunger problem continue to be so dramatic in the world?


To answer your question, let us look at the situation in Africa. While Africa is not the most populous continent, it does contain half of the world’s low-income food-deficit countries and 33 of the 48 least developed countries – countries in which the majority of the population survive on less than one dollar a day.  Recently, the problems that have beset many African countries most often involve a combination of internal and external problems.  These include uncertain climatic conditions, in particular repeated periods of drought and flooding; lack of water control - only 6 percent of the cultivated land in Africa is irrigated or has some kind of water control system, compared to 11.7 percent under irrigation in Latin America and 42.6 percent in South Asia; armed conflicts both within and between countries; high population growth which places land and water resources under pressure and may lead to severe land erosion, salinisation and depletion of the resources themselves; plant pest and human diseases including malaria, tuberculosis and most recently HIV/AIDS; political instability; high levels of debt; declining levels of international aid; and  widespread poverty.


Meanwhile, in the nine years between 1990 and 1999, Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries fell by 19 percent. This contradicts the international commitment to increase ODA from its current low level of 0.24 percent to the agreed target of 0.7 percent of GNP. In 1990 the Africa region received 30 percent of ODA.  By 1998, this had fallen to 21 percent despite the commitment by world leaders at the World Food Summit to strengthen efforts towards reaching of the target.


This is one of the reasons why FAO has called on world leaders to return to Rome this November for the World Food Summit: five years later.  There is a need to reaffirm those commitments made five years ago, when the goal of halving the number of the undernourished in the world by 2015 was endorsed by 186 countries. FAO’s State of food insecurity in the world 2000 clearly showed that the present rate of progress is not sufficient to achieve this goal.  More determined action is thus required from governments and the international community.



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