ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COUNCIL PRESIDENT, IN SPECIAL MEETING ON GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS, CALLS FOR INCREASED FOOD PRODUCTION TO ENSURE ADEQUATE FUTURE SUPPLIES

20 May 2008
ECOSOC/6331

ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COUNCIL PRESIDENT, IN SPECIAL MEETING ON GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS, CALLS FOR INCREASED FOOD PRODUCTION TO ENSURE ADEQUATE FUTURE SUPPLIES

20 May 2008
Economic and Social Council
ECOSOC/6331
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Economic and Social Council

Special Meeting on Global Food Crisis

7th Meeting (PM)

ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COUNCIL PRESIDENT, IN SPECIAL MEETING ON GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS,

CALLS FOR INCREASED FOOD PRODUCTION TO ENSURE ADEQUATE FUTURE SUPPLIES

Acute humanitarian needs must be met in order to stem the crisis caused by soaring food prices, but it was also important to ensure adequate supplies for the future through increased agricultural production, Léo Mérorès ( Haiti), President of the Economic and Social Council, told a special session of that body today.

“Agriculture has to be put back at the centre of the development agenda,” the President said, as he opened the Council’s special meeting on the global food crisis, which heard statements by high-level United Nations and Government officials and a range of experts on hunger and poverty.  He stressed that the challenges involved were complex, noting that greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and global warming must be tackled and productivity increased through investment in appropriate technologies.

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro pointed out that, even before the eruption of the crisis, 830 million people around the world had faced acute food shortages, and rising prices -– 74 per cent for rice and 130 per cent for wheat over the past year -– would push another 100 million people or more into deep poverty, according to the World Bank.  “That represents seven lost years in the global fight against poverty and hunger.”

Warning that the crisis could virtually wipe out the gains made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, she pointed out that, already, such deprivation had bred violence in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.  To avoid worse suffering and instability, small farmers must get the assistance they needed to boost production, but the big picture must not be forgotten.  Global economic growth must continue lifting people out of poverty and reaching those who had been left behind through a new deal on agricultural development. 

Given its reach across the entire United Nations system, she said, the Economic and Social Council’s contribution to that effort, in combination with the Secretary-General’s Task Force on the Global Food Crisis, was particularly valuable.  For the longer term, urgent agricultural investment, particularly in Africa, must include support for women farmers, who comprised up to 70 per cent of the food growing workforce.  Rural institutions and agricultural infrastructure needed to be strengthened and gaps in the supply and distribution chain filled.  “The current crisis is a harbinger of what is to come, unless we act wisely and decisively,” she said.  “Our common humanity demands it.”

General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim said many causes had combined to produce the “perfect storm” of the food crisis, including rising oil prices, climate change, intensifying droughts, floods and cyclones, biofuels and the depletion of global reserves, among others.  Whatever the causes, there was a real emergency and it was the shared responsibility of all to act, with the General Assembly playing a leading role in driving concrete action and results.

For that reason, he said, he had invited John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, to brief the Assembly on 29 May regarding the Comprehensive Action Plan.  That would provide a useful preparation for the subsequent food security meeting to be held in Rome.  He also supported the convening of a special Assembly session to discuss further steps that could contribute to a unified strategy and immediate actions.

John Sawers ( United Kingdom), President of the Security Council, also made a statement.

Among the experts speaking this afternoon was keynote speaker Joachim von Braun, Director-General of the International Food Policy Research Institute, who recommended the creation of an “emergency package” and a “resilience package”, the latter aimed at calming the markets, investing in social protection, investing in sustained agricultural growth, and completing the Doha Round World Trade Organization negotiations.

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute of Columbia University, who said many more crises would occur in the years ahead because the limits of the world’s resources were being pushed to the limit.  To increase the productivity of small-scale farmers in the poorest countries, special financing facilities were needed to provide appropriate seeds, fertilizer and irrigation.  The result could be to triple or even quintuple production on the same parcel of land.

Following presentations by panellists, representatives of many Member States agreed that both short- and long-term measures were needed to address the food crisis, that small farmers in developing countries must be assisted in boosting their output, and that the Economic and Social Council was crucial in bringing together the many factors that must be coordinated to increase overall agricultural production and improve distribution and trading systems.

Speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, the representative of Antigua and Barbuda stressed that the food crisis was essentially a development crisis, caused in large part because locally produced food had been discouraged in many developing countries over past decades.  The representative of Slovenia, speaking on behalf of the European Union, outlined measures under consideration to provide assistance to reverse that situation and relieve the immediate emergency, while pledging to support the Secretary-General’s Task Force.

The President of Malawi and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom also addressed the meeting, via video-link, and the representative of Brazil delivered a statement on behalf of the President of that country.

Other high-level officials speaking today included the Foreign Minister of Spain and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights of France.

The meeting also heard from the representatives of Tajikistan (on behalf of the Eurasian Economic Community -– Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan), Bangladesh (on behalf of the Least Developed Countries), Mexico (on behalf of the Rio Group), Australia, Pakistan, Chile, Switzerland and Sri Lanka.

Representatives of Care International, the International Chamber of Commerce and Caritas also spoke.

The Economic and Social Council will continue its special meeting on the global food crisis at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 21 May.

Introductory Statements

BINGU WA MUTHARIKA, President of Malawi, addressed the special meeting via video-link, saying that one of the major causes of the world food crisis was the absence of a global policy framework on food and agriculture and the lack of consensus on making food and agriculture a top priority.  The amount of money and global investment in food and agriculture, relative to expenditures for other purposes such as weaponry, was proof of the low priority the issue had been given.  The international community’s failure to understand the national dynamics of agriculture and food production was also partly to blame.  For example, the international community had at times thought that large-scale farming was the solution to food production.  In many countries, however, there was a lack of sufficient agricultural land and the majority of producers were peasant farmers.

In Malawi, there was a shared vision and national consensus to turn the country into a “hunger-free nation”, he said.  The country had dedicated more than 30 per cent of its budget to agriculture, food security, irrigation and water development.  The Government was encouraging farmers to take ownership of the food production process and training them in new farming methods.  Those initiatives had already improved significantly the amount of food produced in certain areas.  In 2006-2007, Malawi had had a 1.3 million metric ton grain surplus and, as a result, had been able to become a food donor to neighbouring countries.

Success stories and lessons learned from countries like Malawi should be applied to different parts of the world, he continued.  Greater political commitment and increased overall investment in agriculture and food security were crucial to success.  Globally, international stakeholders in agriculture and food production, like the World Bank, should review their policies towards national situations in order fully to understand needs at the local level.  The international community should consider reorganizing food aid structures to move away from merely shipping food grains in times of crisis towards greater investment in sustainable agriculture production.  “If I were to make an appeal,” he said in conclusion, “it is first of all to request the international community as well as individual Governments to pay increased attention and higher priority to agriculture and food security.”

GORDON BROWN, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said in a video address that food prices were at near-record levels and the current and immediate challenge was to help those worst affected.  The international community should respond generously to appeals by the World Food Programme (WFP) for additional money and support for social protection programmes aimed at ensuring that poor and vulnerable groups had sufficient means to meet their basic needs.  On the national level, sound policies and increased investment in agriculture research to improve yields were essential for success.

“It’s unacceptable that rich countries still subsidize farming by a billion dollars a day,” he continued.  The world needed a fair global trading system that gave farmers in poorer countries better access to the markets of the rich.  The world also needed to build consensus around emerging issues, such as the role of biofuels to ensure that their use would be responsible and sustainable.  The Government of the United Kingdom had already pledged to do its part, having responded to the recent WFP appeal with $60 million in new funds.  It was dedicated to providing an additional $800 million over the next five years for international research on agriculture, targeted at poorer smallholder farmers.  The United Kingdom would help build support for a World Trade Organization deal by the end of June to help the poorest farmers lift themselves out of poverty.

LÉO MÉRORÈS ( Haiti), President of the Economic and Social Council, said that, in order to stem the crisis caused by soaring food prices, acute humanitarian needs must be met, but adequate food supplies for the future must also be assured through increased agricultural production.  The stakes were high as the crisis not only affected the health and survival of millions around the world, but also threatened the stability of Governments, many of which -– including the Government of Haiti -- had recently had to respond to protests and riots as a result of rising food costs.  “Agriculture has to be put back in the centre of our development agenda.”

Stressing that the challenges were complex, he said greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and global warming had to be tackled and productivity increased through investment in appropriate technologies.  The Economic and Social Council, as the main body for coordinating economic and social issues in the United Nations, stood committed to making its contribution.  It had the advantage of bringing all stakeholders together for a meaningful dialogue with the aim of ensuring that policies and messages were coherent and coordinated. 

To that end, the high-level and coordination segments of the Council’s substantive session in July would convene round table and panel discussions on various aspects of food security, he said.  In addition, its humanitarian segment would feature a panel discussion on food aid.  Resources and political commitment could bring about a successful end to the crisis.  “We should use the present focus of attention on the problem as an opportunity to pave a path for a new approach to sustainable agriculture which would improve the lives of millions of farmers and stave off starvation and malnutrition for many more around the world.”

SRGJAN KERIM, President of the sixty-second session of the General Assembly, said many causes had combined to produce the “perfect storm” of the food crisis, including the rise of oil prices, climate change, intensifying droughts, floods and cyclones, biofuels, the depletion of global reserves and more.  The effects could be harsh and more than 100 million people could be pushed further into extreme poverty.  There was a real emergency, and it was the shared responsibility of all to act.

In the short term, donors must act now to support WFP’s shortfall, he said.  In the long term, the best science, tools, technologies and polices were needed to increase production in a sustainable manner, with a view to addressing the interconnected nature of the problem.  Trade policy and land reforms would be a large part of that effort, as would oil price stability and efforts to tackle climate change. 

The General Assembly must have a leading role in driving forward concrete action and results, he stressed, adding that, for that reason, he had invited Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes to brief the Assembly on the Comprehensive Action Plan on 29 May.  That would provide a very useful preparation for the subsequent meeting in Rome.  He supported the idea of convening a special session of the General Assembly to discuss further steps that could contribute to a unified strategy and immediate actions.

ASHA-ROSE MIGIRO, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, pointed out that, even before the crisis erupted, 830 million people in the world had faced acute food shortages and recent price increases -– 74 per cent for rice and 130 per cent for wheat over the past year -– would push another 100 million people or more into deep poverty, according to the World Bank.  “That represents seven lost years in the global fight against poverty and hunger,” she said, warning that it could virtually wipe out the gains made towards the Millennium Development Goals.  Already, such deprivation had bred violence in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.  “And this may be only the beginning,” she warned.  To avoid worse suffering and instability, farmers must get the assistance they needed to boost production, but the big picture must not be forgotten.

Global economic growth must continue lifting people out of poverty, reaching those who had been left behind through a new deal on agricultural development.  The Economic and Social Council’s contribution to that effort, given its reach across the entire United Nations system, was particularly valuable, in combination with the Secretary-General’s Task Force on the Global Food Crisis.  The Task Force would develop a comprehensive strategy for both immediate and long-term action, including mobilizing emergency funds for the short term, strengthening social safety nets, helping small-scale farmers get what they needed for greater production, and reinforcing local and national Governments in their own responses to the crisis.

For the longer term, urgent agricultural investment, particularly in Africa, must include support for women farmers, who made up to 70 per cent of the food growing workforce.  The overall goal was to increase yields and encourage a greater variety of crops, better land use, and improved water management and conservation practices.  Rural institutions and agricultural infrastructure needed to be strengthened and gaps in the supply and distribution chain needed to be filled.  In addition, trade talks must succeed, and energy and food bioproduction must be balanced.  “The current crisis is a harbinger of what is to come, unless we act wisely and decisively,” she concluded.  “Our common humanity demands it.”

JOHN SAWERS, President of the Security Council, said the effects of the food crisis would no doubt have a direct impact on many of the issues currently being addressed by that body, and might, in the future, place new issues before that body.  However, the primary responsibility for addressing the food crisis itself lay outside the Security Council, though it welcomed and supported all efforts in that regard.

JOACHIM VON BRAUN, Director-General of the International Food Policy Research Institute, delivered the keynote address, saying the food crisis had hit a world that had a more unequal distribution of income than ever before and that had left the poorest behind.  The complex causes of the crisis required a comprehensive response and the Institute recommended two sets of policy actions -- an “emergency package” and a “resilience package”.

He said the emergency package comprised four actions, to be taken immediately:  expand emergency responses and humanitarian assistance; eliminate agricultural export bans; undertake fast impact food programmes in key areas; and change biofuel policies.  Together, those actions would prevent the further deterioration of food and nutrition security, increase emergency preparedness, stabilize grain price fluctuations, jump-start agricultural growth and help bring down maize and wheat prices.  The resilience package, which should be phased in immediately, also comprised four actions:  calming the markets; investing in social protection; scaling up investment for sustained agricultural growth; and completing the Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations.

Taken together, he said, those actions would help countries gain access to food supplies at reasonable and stable prices, prevent the adverse consequences of early-childhood malnutrition, protect the assets of the poor, maintain school participation rates, reduce poverty, and lead to more fair and open trade as well as higher welfare for people in developing countries.  The design of programmes to combat the food crisis should be country-driven and country-owned and the final responsibility for their sound implementation should also rest with the countries themselves.

In conclusion, he said the current organizational set-up for agriculture, food and nutrition at the international level had failed to prevent the crisis and it was imperative now to create a new international architecture.  “When the current crisis ends, policy must not return to business as usual.  If it does, the next crisis will hit even harder.”

MIGUEL ANGEL MORATINOS, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Spain, said energy and food needs must be balanced and Africa must become a priority in both areas.  Different paths of political action were required, including an increase in aid for countries with the greatest needs and more resources for child nutrition and social protection programmes.  At the same time, protectionist trends must be corrected and a development dimension incorporated into trade agreements.  Spain was increasing its contributions to the food aid agencies.  It had supported agricultural and rural development in Latin America, Africa and Asia.  Agricultural research and better rural development policies were also needed, and political and diplomatic dialogue was essential.

RAMA YADE, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights of France, said the food crisis required a coordinated and cohesive response by the entire international community.  Though many factors had caused the crisis, perhaps the most significant was the ongoing lack of effective investment in the agricultural sector.  A significant increase in investment and coordination in agricultural-development research was necessary, especially with regard to combating climate change.

She said her country had recently doubled its food assistance budget to enable United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and affected States to meet the current situation.  However, to resolve the crisis in a lasting manner, it was necessary to set up a global partnership that would bring together all stakeholders to take stock of the present crisis and propose the necessary measures and funding to resolve the crisis in the short, medium and long term.  By reinvesting in agricultural development at significant levels and in a coordinated manner, the international community could help ensure an appropriate response to the global challenge.

MARIA LUIZA RIBEIRO VIOTTI (Brazil), delivering an address on behalf of President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, said her country was doing its part in quickly containing the most adverse effects of the crisis by providing food assistance and supporting the rehabilitation of local agriculture.  However, there was also an urgent need for a thorough analysis of the problem, including all the worrisome pressures on food stocks and, above all, for the creation of conditions for poor countries to produce their own food.

Discarding agricultural subsidies was important in that light, as was countering the campaigns fostered by trade protectionists and vested oil interests of attempting to demonize biofuels, which were a source of clean and cheap renewable energy and generating both income and jobs in rural areas.  With that in mind, why were ethanol imports taxed while oil was exempted? she asked.  The place of biofuels must be seriously considered, and Brazil would not shy away from that debate.  Representatives from all interested countries and sectors were invited to participate in an International Conference on Biofuels, to be held in Sao Paulo in November.

JEFFREY SACHS, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said many more crises would be faced in the years ahead because the limits of the world’s resources were being pushed and the planet becoming increasingly crowded.  In the current crisis, food aid would not be enough; increased food production was essential in the poorest food importing countries.  Smallholder farmers could not finance the inputs they needed to increase productivity, such as seeds, fertilizer and irrigation.  That was where special financing facilities could do the most good.  The result could be to triple, or even quintuple in some cases, production on the same parcel of land.

With regard to biofuels, he said biofuel made from sugarcane in Brazil was useful but fuel produced from corn in the United States was not.  Essential food production was being diverted, through subsidies, into fuel in the case of corn.  That was certainly aggravating the food crisis.  As for malnutrition, the crisis should be used finally to draw due attention to that chronic problem.  Increasing local production was also crucial in that area.  The world’s richest countries, as well as the rest of the international community, must fulfil their commitments to provide adequate assistance lest a global downward spiral begin.

ROBERT GLASSER, Secretary-General of CARE International, said the international community had an enormous task ahead of it with demand for food expected to rise dramatically in the near future as the world’s population increased, especially in developing countries.  Already, the impacts of the food crisis were increasingly apparent:  the poor were becoming even poorer as they struggled to pay rising food prices, malnutrition rates were climbing, and migration from rural to urban areas was also increasing.  The international community needed to respond “rapidly and forcefully” to prevent any further damage.

He recommended five steps in particular to combat the current crisis.  Food aid and other relief programmes must be adequately funded in the future; there should be greater investment in expanded social protection programmes; more support should be given to agricultural production and marketing initiatives; outstanding issues surrounding the use of biofuels should be researched fully and its true costs and benefits properly measured and examined; and the international aid system should establish a more integrated and coordinated approach to food security.  The food security crisis should not be considered in isolation from other factors, but as part of a systemic challenge requiring a cohesive and comprehensive response.

JAMES BOREL, Group Vice President of DuPont, speaking on behalf of the International Chamber of Commerce, said that responding successfully to the food crisis depended on broad partnerships, coordinated actions and localized solutions.  The private sector supported several short-term responses, such as expanded assistance by donors and Governments to ensure access to agricultural inputs, and recommendations to devise targeted support measures and safety nets for vulnerable populations.  However, if those short-term aid programmes circumvented local farmers, retailers and extension programmes, they would destroy the infrastructure, investments and advances they had the potential to provide.  Farmers and agri-business were the engines to increase productivity.

While there was no single solution to the global food crisis, he said, technological advances had, over time, contributed greatly to increased food productivity and nutritional quality, while limiting the amount of new land required for cultivation.  Among the policy points that would help provide a “framework for action” were the dissemination of new and existing technologies and techniques for sustainable agriculture and water management.  The delivery of extension and agronomy programming at the local level, increased stewardship training in agricultural best practices, the establishment of secure land tenure and the recognition of female farmers as landowners would also be beneficial.

Interventions by Member States

The representative of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said there were conflicting pressures on all countries at the centre of the crisis and the Secretary-General’s appointment of the Task Force on the Global Food Crisis was therefore welcome.  The crisis was essentially one of development, occurring largely because locally produced food had been discouraged in past decades.  The Economic and Social Council was crucial in bringing together the many factors that must be coordinated to remedy the problem.

The representative of Slovenia, speaking on behalf of the European Union, called for an immediate, coordinated international response, lest stability and development be severely affected.  The underlying causes of the crisis must be addressed, alongside the effects of climate change, inadequate agricultural infrastructure and distorting trade rules.  The United Nations system had a key role to play, and the European Union looked forward to the outcome of the upcoming Rome Conference and the findings of the Secretary-General’s Task Force.  The European Union had mobilized resources for immediate assistance and was considering many short-term, medium-term and long-term measures.

The representative of Tajikistan, speaking on behalf of the Eurasian Economic Community, said entire countries and even regions were facing widespread hunger, and called on donor States to increase assistance for both short- and long-term measures to shore up global food security.  There was a need for emergency mechanisms as well as reformed trade rules, land usage and finance regimes.  The provision of seeds, fertilizer and other necessities would also help farmers increase production.

The representative of Bangladesh, speaking on behalf of the least developed countries, said the United Nations should take the lead in responding to the food crisis.  Many least developed countries faced insurmountable obstacles to agricultural development, including supply-side distortions created by trade barriers and an overall decline in global food aid since 1973.  To address the problem most effectively, explicit and targeted international measures should tackle the food security crisis in conjunction with other development issues such as climate change and the Millennium Development Goals.  A cohesive and coherent inter-agency plan of action should address the problem in the short, medium and long term, while the establishment of an international food fund was seriously considered as part of the global solution to the crisis.

The representative of Mexico, speaking on behalf of the Rio Group, called for urgent measures to help the poorest and most vulnerable populations to deal with the rising cost of food.  Though short-term emergency measures would be necessary, a longer-term response was also needed to ensure sustainable food production for those populations.  A successful conclusion to the Doha Round should put an end to trade policies that distorted international markets to the detriment of developing countries.  In the future, all domestic measures that could have a negative effect on world food markets should be avoided.

The representative of Australia recognized the challenge of addressing the negative impacts of high food prices while protecting world food markets from further damage.  Short-term inward-looking policies were not the answer.  For its part, Australia had pledged $30 million in emergency assistance in response to the recent WFP appeal, in addition to $60 million in support for other initiatives of that agency.  At the international level, the dismantling of barriers to trade should be part of a global response to the food crisis, along with greater trade liberalization overall.

The representative of Pakistan described the situation as a “crisis of neglect and complacency”, noting that, every year since 1998, there had been roughly 20 food emergencies in Africa, yet, despite those warning signs, there had been no comprehensive international response.  Now it was clear that a concerted effort was needed to enlarge food production in developing countries.  The unequal agricultural trading system had been one of the main causes of the deterioration in the food production system globally, especially in developing countries.  A successful conclusion to the Doha Round would need to address that imbalance.  Solving the food crisis would require not only an international action plan, but also the necessary funding, technology and political will to ensure its effective implementation.

The representative of Chile said the food crisis would become a “silent tsunami” if not dealt with immediately and effectively.  Pervious progress in reducing poverty was now being negated by rising food costs.  Trade liberalization, increased investment in scientific and technological research to benefit the agricultural sector, the elimination of subsidies and the removal of trade distorting barriers were all highly necessary actions to be taken.  “A hungry person is an angry person,” he warned, adding that, unless something was done urgently to resolve the food crisis, it could spark more social conflict and unrest.

The representative of Switzerland said the food crisis had highlighted the lack of sustainability of various food policies that had been implemented for decades in many countries worldwide.  The current situation was an opportunity for the global community to reverse its chronic underinvestment in local food production in many developing countries.  Enhanced cooperation between the United Nations and international financial institutions should be encouraged in the future to help increase sustainable food production.  Nationally, food security policies based on the right of “food for all” should promote sustainable local food production and support the establishment of local farmers’ organizations and associations.

The representative of Sri Lanka appealed to donors to make certain that the most vulnerable communities were taken care of first and foremost, since they faced the greatest suffering because of the crisis.   Sri Lanka called for a global framework for national action aimed at small-scale farmers, who bore the greatest responsibility for feeding most of the world’s “bottom billion”.  All action must be sustainable and aim towards eradicating extreme poverty.  The United Nations must lead the coordination of that effort, but each nation should contribute according to its ability.  Sri Lanka would certainly play its part.

The representative of Caritas outlined the results of the 16 May Civil Society Forum on the Global Food Crisis.  It included recommendations for short-, medium- and long-term measures focusing on increasing production by small-scale farmers.  Training, the creation of better transportation infrastructure, the provision of necessary supplies, and other measures should be implemented nation-wide in the poorest countries.  United Nations entities should consider carefully the pros and cons of various technologies being proposed for increasing agricultural production.  For instance, most genetically modified crops were best suited to large-scale, input-intensive mono-cropping schemes, but not designed to meet the needs of most small-scale farmers in the developing world.  In addition, biofuels should only be produced in a manner that did not tax the world’s food supply.  Developed countries should reconsider plans for ethanol production in view of the latest warnings of adverse results.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.