UN Focuses on Small Farmers in Developing Countries

September 8, 2008 at 11:48 pm Leave a comment

When food prices spiked earlier this summer, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations held a roundtable discussion on how small-scale farmers in developing countries could take advantage of the boom in agricultural commodities.  The session attacked many complex agricultural issues, including whether today’s high food prices are here to stay or merely an anomaly.

The international panel – a good number of which spoke mellifluous accented English — included the Assistant Director-General of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization;  Malawi’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Food Security; and representatives of the World Bank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and chemical manufacturer Dupont, maker of fertilizers and genetically modified seeds. 

Here’s a simplified version of some of the key points covered during the intensive two-and-a-half-hour discussion on July 3: 

·  Everyone agreed that neglecting agriculture in developing countries was a big mistake.  For decades, development experts had discouraged poor struggling countries from developing their agriculture sectors, arguing that industrialized nations could supply them with the food they needed very cheaply.  They instead encouraged poor nations to develop tourism and other sectors, which they argued would be better for their economies.  As a result of that thinking, many developing countries that were once self-sufficient in producing key staples, like rice and corn, became dependent on other countries and now face severe food shortages and prices they can’t afford. 

·  Agriculture is now seen as a key driver of development in third world countries.  It is also viewed as an effective way to reduce poverty and ensure a nation’s food security.  In a much touted study, two World Bank economists write that “sound economic growth of the agricultural sector is at least twice as effective at reducing poverty as any other sector.”

·  Everyone agreed that the developed world needs to cut poor countries a little slack.  Emerging countries with budding agriculture sectors can’t compete in overseas markets that are highly subsidized by their governments, namely Europe and the U.S.

·  Ironically, high food prices present a good opportunity for developing countries, particularly if they sell more food than they buy.  One speaker refers to several studies that show that high food prices tend to reduce poverty for some of the poorest people in the world. 

These were some of the main ideas that were covered during the discussion.  Over the next two days, I’ll be writing about the impact of high food prices on developing countries, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  And I’ll be summarizing the views of some of the speakers on whether food prices, like oil prices, will rise, fall, or remain the same. Stay tuned. 

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