10 de diciembre del 2000
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Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo
Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente
"The New Model for Agricultural Development"

By Jacques Diouf*

ROME - Although world food supplies have increased faster than overall population growth over the past decade, the food insecurity in the world remains widespread. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that in the mid-1990s 824 million people, 96 percent of whom live in developing countries, did not have sufficient food to meet their basic nutritional needs.

The problem is not one of aggregate supply but of geographical distribution and lack of access. These people have either limited access to productive resources or lack the income to purchase the food they need. In addition to the chronically undernourished, millions more suffer from temporary food emergencies as a consequence of natural and man-made disasters, including a rising number of armed conflicts.

Rural development is all the more essential because the vast majority of the people who suffer from chronic or temporary hunger live in rural areas. Although the proportion of the world's population living in rural areas has been declining, the absolute number has surpassed three billion people and is expected to stay at that level for at least the next 30 years.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient food, both in terms of quantity and quality, that is necessary for a healthy and active life. However, for millions of people, food security does not exist. A large majority of the undernourished live in Asia, which still accounts for two-thirds of the total number of undernourished, although spectacular progress has been registered in East Asia and certain other countries of the continent. Africa, south of the Sahara, is still home to 23 percent of the world's hungry. In this region, which is plagued by the highest proportion of the undernourished in the population, there has even been an increase in terms of the total numbers.

But is worth noting also that, in the period from 1980 to 1996, of the 13 countries in the world that have managed to reduce most substantially the proportion of food insecure in their population, five were in Africa. Thus, there are signs of hope.

In developing countries with large rural populations, agriculture is the engine of growth not only in the rural areas but also for the rest of the economy. In some of the poorest countries, it generates as much as 30 to 50 percent of gross domestic output, employs 70 to 80 percent of the national labor force, and contributes 40 to 70 percent of the export earnings.

A particular challenge for the rural areas is that the sources of agricultural growth have to undergo a fundamental change. The past pattern of expanding land is already reaching its limits. About 80 percent of agricultural production expansion will now have to come from sustainable intensification. Mechanisms for practical adoption by farmers of existing technologies, followed by substantial agricultural research, will be needed to make this shift economically attractive and environmentally friendly. The tools needed to achieve sustainable intensification will change.

The degradation of agricultural land and declining soil fertility continues to be a threat, especially in developing countries. The problem is most severe in sub-Saharan Africa. In South Asia, land degradation costs about 10 billion dollars a year in foregone production. If investment is not made in land rehabilitation and conservation today, the cost of doing so tomorrow will be much greater.

Many developing countries have already made efforts to reduce the bias against agriculture and rural areas in their national development policies. This leads to incentives for increased investment in agriculture in these countries.

On the other hand, many countries are being advised to reduce or adjust their traditional support for agriculture, to make the sector compatible with the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements.

The latter process must be a progressive one in line with the transition and compensatory measures provided in these agreements. As a new round of multilateral negotiations on agricultural trade is getting under way, high levels of support and protection in some higher-income countries remain. They can be measured by the fact that member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are making substantial transfers to their own agriculture sector (360 billion dollars in 1999). Many developing countries have, on their part, already undertaken reforms that have not only contributed to reducing distortions in world markets, but have also reduced past disincentives against their own agriculture. Their efforts will not be effective unless they are supported by corresponding reductions of distortions in higher-income countries.

As we move into this new century, many countries have sufficient knowledge and experience in making rural development conducive to food security. Success will come from efforts at the national as well as international levels. As globalization continues apace, we must improve our rules-based systems of international exchange among countries, keeping in view the well-being of rural people throughout the world.

* Jacques Diouf is director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

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