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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)


It has been a while since I did a post related to food assistance. The North American branch of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is participating in a really interesting event coming up that I myself would like to live stream. 

Based in Washington, DC FAO North America is participating in the upcoming 1st Annual Food Tank Summit which will be held at the George Washington University on January 21st. You can sign up to watch the live stream and check out the participants such as the National Young Farmers Coalition,Harvard Law School and the GWU Institute for Sustainability on the Food Tank website.

I spoke with Nicholas Nelson, Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in North America on a variety of topics.

Q How did you come to develop an interest in agriculture and social justice?

logoThe organization I work for, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is a specialized agency of the United Nations with headquarters in Rome, Italy, and 5 Regional Offices which are in Africa, the Near East, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. FAO also has more than 80 country offices in those regions, where we advise governments directly and conduct project operations. The FAO is a key player in the global community’s fight to end hunger and poverty and I’ve been privileged to work for FAO for over 25 years in several roles, the latest as director of the FAO’s North America office in Washington, DC.

Q What was the impetus for the creation of FAO and specifically, the priority of Investment in Agriculture?

The founders of FAO over 60 years ago had the foresight to understand the central role of agriculture for human development and the duty of the international community to tackle the problem of hunger and malnutrition. They realized the need for an international organization with equal representation by all nations in the world which could coordinate agricultural policies and global interventions and give a voice to millions of people living in poor countries and who are unheard. FAO has been able to adapt to the demands of a constantly changing world and help countries respond to new challenges that have emerged: climate change, degraded land and water resources, wide-scale animal epidemics, food crises and natural disasters, and in recent years soaring food prices and market instability.

As to the priority of investment in agriculture, it’s been demonstrated over the last two decades that investment in agriculture is one of the most effective ways to reduce hunger and poverty, especially in rural areas.

Many countries that have consistently invested in agriculture are on track to achieve the UN’s first Millennium Development Goal which is to reduce by half the proportion of hungry people in the world. FAO’s recently published State of Food and Agriculture (2012)* (2014 publication is at the link below) provided comprehensive data on the relative sizes of investment and expenditure flows by farmers, governments, donors and private foreign investors in low- and middle-income countries. 

                                            State of Food and Agriculture 2014 


What emerged is that in these 76 low- and middle-income countries, farmers themselves are by far the largest investors in agriculture, but face all kinds of risks because of poor access to resources, lack of infrastructure, political instability and lots of other challenges. 

Recognizing that investing in agriculture raises productivity and incomes and reduces hunger, FAO has drawn up guidelines for countries to improve their governance of land and resource rights, and principles for responsible investment as a basis for determining long-term benefits and choosing the best investment options.

Q Is it possible to end hunger and/or poverty?  

Measuring the different dimensions of food security is very complex; one standalone indicator that most people are familiar with is the number of people in the world suffering from chronic hunger, which is defined as suffering for at least one year without enough food for an active and healthy life. While this number has dropped from 1 billion people in 1990 to 842 million as most recently reported in 2012, the rate of progress is too slow to reach the international goals for hunger reduction set by the United Nations (part of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals), often because of high rates of population growth in many hunger-affected countries. Still, it shows that real progress can be achieved when countries and communities take action to address the various dimensions of food security which are: food availability, economic and physical access to food, food utilization and stability (vulnerability and shocks) over time.
Some countries, notably Brazil and others just a few years ago, set much more demanding targets of eradicating hunger, and in 2012 the UN took up that theme with its own “Zero Hunger Challenge” with the goal of eliminating hunger in our lifetimes. The global community is putting much more effort into addressing the burdens of malnutrition: hunger, under-nutrition, micro nutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity.                                                       


Q Are these conditions reflections of the worst parts of human nature?   

Most people are unaware that the quantity of food produced on a global basis  is more than enough for everyone, and yet chronic hunger persists on such a scale whereby one person in eight around the world cannot get enough food to live an active and healthy life. 

There are severe and lasting consequences to this problem because hunger is accompanied by under-nutrition: one in four children in the world under five years of age is stunted; this means 165 million children are so malnourished they will never reach their full physical and cognitive potential; about two billion people lack the nutrition they need to grow and develop into healthy human beings. 

Q Is the role of government to (1) recognize the value in preventing poverty and hunger, (2) recognize that this requires constant effort and (3) be responsible for creating and enforcing legislation that establishes a standard quality of life for all?

Well, returning to the theme of investment in agriculture, and that farmers must be central to any investment strategy, a good investment climate depends on markets and governments. Markets generate price incentives that signal to farmers and other private businesses when and where opportunities exist for making profitable investments. 

Governments are responsible for creating the legal, policy and institutional environment that enables private investors, both smallholder farmers and larger enterprises, to respond to market opportunities in socially responsible ways. Without this enabling environment and market incentives, farmers will not invest enough in agriculture or achieve socially optimal results.  

Q In a world where all governments were responsible (according to the standards set by international social justice organizations), would non profit organizations and non governmental organizations solely exist to conduct scholarly research and advise political representatives during the process of creating legislation?

A world facing a major challenge such as eradicating hunger needs all possible resources and entities involved in food security to be committed to action: no single entity or sector can achieve such a goal alone. Over the last several years the UN system, built on a traditional constituency of member nations, has become much more inclusive in its formulation of policy and thematic challenges to be addressed by the world community. 

The FAO, among others, has greatly expanded its dialogue beyond governments in order to get full involvement of civil society organizations and NGOs in the analysis of issues, exchange of concrete on-the-ground experience in all areas affecting food security. The challenges of hunger are vast and multi-dimensional; no government can confront these issues alone. Partnerships with CSO, NGO, academia and the private sector is the only way to achieve progress and lasting results.  

Q From the perspective of the young person living in poverty in a rural area what kinds of current programs, initiatives and opportunities exist to improve their life in the immediate future as well as over the long term? 

On a global scale, many factors justify a strong focus on better enabling smallholder farmers to invest in agriculture, starting with their sheer numbers and economic importance and relative productivity. About 85 percent of 525 million farms worldwide are operated by smallholders on plots measuring less than 2 hectares. Sampling in developing countries showed that smallholder farms generate 60 to 70 percent of total rural income through farm and non-farm activity; they have high potential to be engines of growth and poverty reduction. 

Compared to large-scale farmers, smallholders can have significant advantages in terms of land productivity. At the same time smallholders face disadvantages such as access to land, markets, inputs, credit insurance and technology and sometimes government polices work against them. Many smallholders are women, for whom these constraints are, almost everywhere, even more severe. Closing the gender gap and ensuring equal access by women to resources and assets is needed to accelerate agricultural and rural development and reduce poverty.

Q Are under served communities, both rural and urban, in the United States and other developed counties, included in the conversations and investment priorities of FAO and other partner organizations? If not, what steps are necessary to move this outcome?

While developed nations are the main financial sources for the FAO and other humanitarian and development organizations, the governance, the definition of objectives and priority setting is decided and agreed together as a community of member nations, with most of the work directed to support developing countries in the challenges of food security. 

The developed nations also provide vast technical expertise, goods and services which are deployed in developing countries under FAO programs and projects. The experience of developed nations in addressing their own challenges of poverty, hunger and rural development, or confronting animal, crop and plant diseases, is also a factor in determining priorities and action plans. 


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