TEHRAN - Maximo Torero, chief economist and assistant director-general for the Economic and Social Development Department at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), says the organization has just increased its allocation of funds to support capacity building for Iranian experts.
For example, FAO is leading a multi-year campaign to eradicate Peste des Petits Ruminants, a virus that causes huge economic damage to livestock farmers in Iran
In an exclusive interview with the Tehran Times, he elaborated on the situation of food security and agriculture during the coronavirus outbreak and policies which have been adopted to deal with the problem.
Below is the full text of the interview:
Does coronavirus affect food security? And how?
We should aim absolutely to make sure that the coronavirus does not worsen global food security. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic presents multiple risks in the battle against hunger. First, restrictions on movement may have a material impact on food production, processing and purchasing. That is already evident for example in fisheries.
Second, illness and fear of illness may reduce labour availability. Some very large meat-packing facilities in the United States of America have closed for this reason. In Europe, many farmers are worried about harvesting important crops such as asparagus and strawberries. That said, food security depends on multiple factors, such as availability, accessibility and affordability. There is enough food in the world to avoid a food crisis, so it is important to work on those channels with well-targeted interventions that allow food systems to operate and allow people, especially the most vulnerable, to acquire what they need.
Will the pandemic increase hunger throughout the world?
Many countries are finding ways to keep their food supply chains alive, which is what FAO has from the beginning insisted is crucial. That said, the pandemic will sadly probably increase hunger, mostly due to the severe global economic contraction it is causing. FAO has consistently noted that poor economic performance correlates to a rise in the number of food-insecure people.
It’s hard not to anticipate a significant increase, in the tens of millions globally, as a result of COVID-19 and the recession. This goes beyond food systems. Falling oil prices, for example, will disproportionately affect major oil producers. On top of that, it may become harder to sustain relief efforts for existing humanitarian programmes for food security. This shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
How agriculture sector will bear the consequences? In particular, in Iran?
That’s a very complex question. The importance of agricultural sectors is becoming more evident to all, and those who work in it are now recognized as essential. It’s also a sector that, especially where smallholder farms are the norm, is labour intensive, making it especially vulnerable during the pandemic. Large grain farms are often highly mechanized and may not be impeded, but people need diverse foods.
Another issue is that declining incomes point to lower household budget for food and ultimately lower incomes for those who produce it. These people are very often already among the poorest parts of society.
Around 15 million people in Iran’s rural areas rely on agriculture as a source of income. Many of these own small farms or no land at all and many are close to the poverty line. Water is not abundantly available. Improving the prospect and performance of Iran’s smallholders -and all farmers – is a long-term national priority and efforts should be intensified now.
Does FAO intend to take measures in regard to post-coronavirus crisis, which might be hunger, damages to the agriculture sector or rise in food prices?
FAO is working hard to make sure the world’s food systems deliver amid the pandemic. International cooperation is key, and we have advocated for dismantling barriers to food trade of all kinds, at least for the duration of the crisis. The world has ample stocks in key commodity food staples such as rice, wheat, maize and vegetable oils, and harvest prospects are strong. That said those stocks are increasingly concentrated in fewer countries, which makes it even more important that global food trade is facilitated so that food can go where it is most needed.
Following the surge in production of hazardous waste, and improper waste disposal in some countries, soil and water are at risk of contamination, how it would affect food security? What are the ways to tackle the problem?
That question goes well beyond the pandemic. FAO is working a lot on water scarcity and water management issues, including in Iran. Soil health has become an increasing priority for FAO. There is still a lot to learn. As with climate change, these issues present to agriculture the challenge of finding ways to do more with less.
Agricultural productivity is quite weak in some areas of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, and can doubtless be increased. Countries on the high-yield frontier are likely to take an increasingly holistic approach to assess their natural resource limits, which include factors such as soil erosion, nitrate runoff and salination. As FAO Director-General QU Dongyu recently said, human beings wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t been clever in the past, and so we need to be clever going into the future.
Does FAO change any of its programs or policies in the face of the outbreak? In particular, in Iran?
FAO is working very hard now to offer policy advice, data support and concrete assistance to member states amid the COVID-19 international health crisis. We are developing new public-access tools and a data hub to help speed up necessary decisions. So we are changing our workflow for sure!
At the same time, lockdown means FAO’s technical staff are often working virtually. But they are certainly still doing the core work that the Organization is mandated to do, such as the upcoming Forest Resource Assessment, contributing to biodiversity conventions, promoting robust governance of food safety standards and – as you in Iran know well – leading the battle against the Desert Locust infestations in numerous countries.
In fact, FAO just increased its allocation of funds to support capacity building for Iran’s experts in this area, which is one where FAO has decades of experience. We plan to optimize rather than change our programs, and if member states and other partners agree, we will happily expand them. For example, FAO is leading a multi-year campaign to eradicate Peste des Petits Ruminants, a virus that causes huge economic damage to livestock farmers in Iran and surrounding countries.
It’s worth remembering that FAO’s campaign to globally eradicate Rinderpest – the only viral infectious disease besides smallpox to have been stamped out - was done amid all sorts of civil conflicts and natural disasters because all stakeholders agreed that no factional interest should prevent success. We will persist.