9 May 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

press conference on ideas for realizing african agricultural potential


Africa presented a “fantastic opportunity” to complement and stabilize the global food system with small-farmer production in ways not foreseen at present, Peter Hartmann of the Nigeria-based International Institute for Tropical Agriculture said today at a Headquarters press conference.


Floating ideas and hopes for realizing the continent’s agricultural potential, Mr. Hartmann said good news was spreading everywhere in Africa, which would prove to be a rich stage for developing a solution to the unstable food system of today.  Small producers could complement the major commercial systems that had been carrying the burden of feeding the world.  Africa had the necessary land mass, but did not need to raise productivity in the short term, given the present food crisis.  However, it had the requisite arable lands and ability to grow different crops in different seasons.


He said what was needed was the decision by world leaders to make use of Africa’s assets in feeding the new demands arising from increasing populations and economic growth in the mega-economies of China, India, Brazil and elsewhere around the globe.  The World Bank was projecting population growth of 50 per cent by 2030, which would be catastrophic without major changes in how people were fed.  Africa had a very big new role to play in such a scenario.  Everyone had seen what had been done in Ghana and in Malawi, and among the lessons learned were that technology or aid on their own was not enough.  Progress must be based on a holistic approach, underpinned by technology.


Joining Mr. Hartmann at the press conference, held as the Commission on Sustainable Development wrapped up the first half of its two-week session, were Kathleen Abdalla, Chief of the National Information, Monitoring and Outreach Branch of the Division for Sustainable Development in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and David O’Connor, Chief of the Division’s Policy, Integration and Analysis Branch.


Ms. Abdalla said it was fitting that the Commission had decided to consider Africa this year, alongside other issues pertinent to the continent, such as agriculture, land, drought, desertification and rural development.  There had been some “very good” progress in Africa, which had experienced unprecedented economic growth rates of around 6 per cent in 2005 and 2006, and 7 per cent last year.  Per capita income had also risen and there had been progress in the education field, with many more children attending primary school.


Nevertheless, many challenges remained, she cautioned, noting that there was concern that Africa would not meet the Millennium Development Goals.  Agricultural production was still low and faced challenges relating to land tenure and the availability of credit.  In addition, at only 26 per cent access to energy, the continent remained below the target figure set at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development of 35 per cent in the following 20 years.  The level of access fell to a low 8 per cent for rural households.  Transportation infrastructure also needed attention, as did water storage and facilities.  However, the good news was that the international community was paying more attention to Africa.  At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was convening a high-level panel in September on attainment of the Millennium Development Goals in Africa, and regional institutions were making a big effort to promote regional coherence and cooperation.


Mr. O’Connor noted that the Division for Sustainable Development had produced two trends reports, one of which centred on Africa.  One reason why it was so important to deal with the continent in connection with agriculture was that nearly 60 per cent of the labour force in many African countries worked in agriculture.  That, combined with the very young age structure of the population and rapid population growth, meant that more and more people were joining the labour force each year, with agriculture the main source of employment.


If agriculture could not absorb the new workers, there would be a serious problem, he said, explaining that one reason why productivity per worker had been more or less stagnant recently was the sheer numbers of new people entering the labour force.  Another serious concern was that the production of cereals had been virtually flat since the 1960s.


Responding to questions, Ms. Abdalla said the issue of trade barriers and subsidies had come up in meetings of the Commission, which was trying to identify obstacles to the implementation of agreed global goals and targets.  That was certainly an issue for the Doha Round of World Trade Organization trade negotiations.


Mr. O’Connor added that, although the Division did not have a separate study on that, the World Bank and other institutions were certainly considering the impact of subsidies and tariffs on developing-country agriculture, African agriculture in particular.  Judging from the interventions by the African Group in yesterday’s meting, there was strong support for reforming the current policies of countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).


At the same time, he said, the expectation was that, in the short-term, some African and least developed countries could face difficulties if the effect of reforms raised world prices.  It was also a matter of concern that, while reform would likely generate a strong output response in the long run -- providing a stronger incentive to farmers in the developing world -- there may be a need to protect heavily import-dependent countries from the impact of further price rises for some years to come.


Concerning the dependence on technological and other advances to boost production, Mr. Hartmann said work was under way to generate food systems without technological inputs.  Work was also being carried out on systems that did not need inputs so that the small farmer could still produce crops without needing to find the resources to buy pesticides, for example.  But doing so required a lot of research, which was a weakness in the system.


To a number of questions about the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the panellists said the question of disbanding or rethinking the former had not come up in the Commission.  Rather, support had been expressed for both FAO and IFAD and it was thought that both were doing good work.


As for the role of speculators in the context of the recent sharp increases in food prices, Mr. O’Connor said it was hard to explain why they had risen so fast, but one factor was the very low level of food stocks.  Without such a cushion, and given the reluctance to export food amid short supplies on the world market, there would be big price movements in response to relatively small changes in demand and supply conditions.


Asked to comment on the perception that the United Nations as a whole did not have a firm grasp on how the markets worked, particularly the futures markets, Ms. Abdalla said the Organization was interested in helping developing countries, where it often focused on small-scale farmers and how to help them on the ground.  Futures markets were very remote from small farmers and activities like capacity-building, introducing new technology, improving roads or access to energy.


She described a question about using futures markets to hedge as “interesting”, noting, however, that it was very hard for an organization like the World Food Programme (WFP), for example, to project its needs since it reacted to disasters and emergencies.  It was much easier for a large-scale farmer to hedge using the futures markets because he knew what crops he was planting and his future investment needs.


Replying to another question, she said the Chairman’s summary emanating from the Commission’s sixteenth session would include a ministerial-level “way forward” outcome text.  The Economic and Social Council meeting later in the year and the FAO Summit in Rome next month would take that into account.  Barriers and constraints would be identified during the current session, whereas the Commission would take policy decisions on this year’s agenda during the next session.


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