Europe includes some of the most advanced countries in the world as well as others that have high levels of poverty, FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf said today in his address to the FAO Regional Conference for Europe.
"The level of poverty in the region, based on a poverty line of less than $2 per day, stands at 21 percent and 5 percent of the population are affected by food insecurity. Such levels are lower than in most other parts of the world, but significant differences exist among the countries," Dr Diouf said.
"Special attention needs to be paid to the poorest countries of the region, especially those of southeast Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, to help resolve their problems of food insecurity and rural poverty," Dr Diouf said.
Factors fuelling poverty in the past 15 years include the difficulties associated with moving from a centrally planned economy to a market economy, declining production in agriculture and the agrifood sector and resulting unemployment. In the Balkans, the situation has been further exacerbated by conflict, he added.
The number of undernourished people in the countries in transition grew from 25 to 34 million between 1993-1995 and 1999-2001, according to FAO's State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003. Nearly all of the increases in undernourishment took place in the Commonwealth of Independent States, where the number of hungry people rose from 20.6 to 28.8 million.
Agricultural production in the region as a whole fell by about 0.5 percent per year between 1998 and 2003. Agriculture accounted for 12 percent of the region's gross domestic product in 2001.
Agricultural exports represented 7.4 percent of total exports in 2002, for a value of $211 billion, against agricultural imports of $222 billion. The 25 countries of the European Union account for more than 90 percent of these figures.
The year 2003 was unfortunately not a good year for agriculture in most countries in the region, Dr Diouf said. Drought, frost, flooding and other problems, such as locust and rodent infestation, led to a sharp decline in agricultural production, especially in Armenia, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine.
"During the last biennium, six countries of the Balkans and Commonwealth of Independent States received emergency assistance from FAO to deal with crises in their agricultural sectors, for a total of some US$15 million," he added.
Despite these problems, Dr Diouf said that he was confident that a determined Europe can meet the challenges of poverty and food insecurity.
Noting that external aid to agricultural development fell from $27 billion to as low as $10 billion during the 1990s, Dr Diouf called on countries to double external aid to agriculture. He said investment in agriculture should also be increased in order to achieve progress in reducing undernourishment.
He underlined that a fair trading policy is essential for rural development and food security.
The transfer and adoption of appropriate technology is essential for the sustainable intensification of agricultural systems, Dr Diouf added. Very important are the promotion of exchanges, the existence of regional and global partnerships and the strengthening of linkages between public and private research, extension, education and communication institutions.
The Regional Conference for Europe will also discuss the improvement of food safety.
"Improving the safety and quality of food products remains a key objective of governments, private sector and civil society organizations of all the countries of the region. Such improvement will help safeguard public health, meet consumer expectations and encourage local and international trade," Dr Diouf said.