6 June 2008
Press Conference

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

press conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator on global food security crisis


The top United Nation humanitarian official briefed correspondents today on the global food security crisis, Zimbabwe’s ban on the activities of non-governmental organizations and the situation in Myanmar.


At a Headquarters press conference, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the High-Level Task Force established by the Secretary-General had put together a “Comprehensive Framework for Action” based on a consensus between the United Nations agencies, the World Bank, World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a coordinated response involving agencies, national Governments, donors, civil society and the private sector.  It contained recommendations both for meeting immediate short-term needs and longer-term global food security, focusing on smallholder farmers in developing countries, a group that held the greatest potential for increasing agricultural production.


Turning to the High-Level Conference on World Food Security, which concluded in Rome yesterday, he said a lot of high-level commitments had been made to do something effective and practical about the global crisis.  The Conference had also resulted in some useful financial commitments, with some $6 billion in new pledges and some $6 billion to $7 billion in existing pledges.  There had also been a broad consensus on:  the need to meet immediate humanitarian requirements arising from increases in food prices; the need for an immediate boost in terms of inputs, such as fertilizers, seeds and animal feed to ensure smallholders in developing countries could produce more in the coming crop cycle; and the need to reduce export and other restrictions.  The longer-term solution lay in more investment in agricultural productivity.


In response to the directive from Zimbabwe’s Minister for Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, instructing all private voluntary organizations and non-governmental organizations to suspend field operations, Mr. Holmes said:  “This is a deplorable decision that comes at a critical humanitarian juncture for the people of Zimbabwe.”  Humanitarian aid for at least 2 million of the poorest and most vulnerable, particularly children, would be severely restricted.  “I strongly urge the Government to reconsider and rescind this decision as soon as possible,” he said, stressing that the organizations concerned needed unrestricted access and guarantees for their safety and security.


On Myanmar, he said the relief operation there was moving slowly in the right direction.  More than 180 visas had been issued to United Nations personnel, with 20 applications pending.  The issuance of visas for non-governmental organization personnel was improving, but there was still a lack of clarity.  International relief efforts had reached some 1.3 million people out of the 2.4 million affected, which did not include those people reached by Government or private initiatives.  There was no evidence of unusual health risks or starvation.  There had been some 328 flights to Yangon, with some 10 to 15 flights arriving daily.


Calling for a further stepping up of relief efforts, he said funding would also be needed in the future for logistics and food.  The total international aid so far was $155 million contributed and $108 million pledged.  Those amounts included the response to the Flash Appeal for $201 million, two thirds of which had been met in contributions and pledges.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was also in constant touch with the Government regarding voluntary returns from camps for the displaced.  The Tripartite Core Group, comprising the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), United Nations and the Government, was proving useful as a problem-solving and coordination mechanism, and in assessing humanitarian needs and longer-term recovery efforts.


Answering questions about Zimbabwe, Mr. Holmes said that, because of the ban, 2 million people, particularly children, were now at greater risk than before.  The situation was not only deteriorating due to economic factors, but also because of drought.  The United Nations would try to compensate for the gap created by the directive.  The reason for the ban was not known, beyond claims that non-governmental organizations had participated in unlawful activities, though no evidence of that had been seen.


If the situation improved in three weeks after the run-off election, it would be serious, but manageable, he said.  However, if the ban, which also covered local non-governmental organizations, stayed in place after that, the consequences would be more dramatic.  There were already significant food shortages and difficulties in accessing water and medical facilities.  However, it could not be said with certainty that food was being used as a weapon.


Answering questions on Myanmar, he said he was not satisfied with the current level of accessibility.  It would be better if access was unfettered and free, but there had been significant improvement.  The shorter the visa approval process took, the better.  It was also important to ensure that people could be stationed in the country for the requisite amount of time.  Private efforts in Myanmar were very valuable in reaching people who had not been reached by international efforts.


In response to questions on the food crisis, Mr. Holmes described population increase as a fundamental aspect driving that emerging challenge.  According to the World Bank, production must increase by 50 per cent in 2030 and double in 2050.  That could be done by increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers in developing countries.  Because food had been cheap and plentiful over the past 20 to 30 years, not enough had been invested in improving agricultural productivity.  The dramatic rise in food prices had been a wake-up call regarding the need to change policies and increase investment.


There would probably be enough food for the world population, given a perfect distribution system, he continued.  However, many smallholder farmers could not reach the market, if there was a market at all.  They had no storage facilities and fertilizers had become too expensive.  In order to reach the international markets, trade liberalization made sense.


The Rome Conference had increased pressure to wind down export restrictions and bans, he said, noting that, because Thailand was now exporting more rice, the price had fallen by 20 per cent.  There was also a need for a rapid conclusion to the Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations.


He said that, besides population growth, there was a multiplicity of other causes for the food security crisis.  They included changing diets; falling grain stocks caused by biofuels, among other things; climate change; and speculation.  Science could play a great role, for example in a “green revolution” in Africa.  However, each country had to make its own decisions about the use of genetically modified seeds.  Hybrid seeds must be bought every year, after all, which was expensive.  Much could be done, however, with drought- and salt-resistant seeds.


* *** *



For information media • not an official record