Food and agriculture policies for a sustainable future


Opening remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General

25 February 2010, OECD HQ, France

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to welcome you here today. It has been a long while since Agriculture Ministers met at the OECD. That was back in 1998!

You are right to have chosen to meet again at Ministerial level and your timing is perfect! This is an important time for our societies, as we move from crisis resolution to, hopefully, sustained growth. This is the time to ask the questions we are always too busy to ask: what kind of world are we building? What kind of world we should be building?  

And what role can Agriculture have in helping us solve some of the most important common challenges we are facing today, from the economic to the social and environmental spheres? I believe Agriculture has a major role to play and look forward to hearing your views.

But before we discuss those weighty issues, let me take a moment to celebrate and toast the diversity of participants in this meeting. 

Today we are delighted to have with us the first representative of Chile at a Ministerial meeting since the OECD Council invited Chile to become a member. Welcome!

We also have Ministers from four accession countries: Estonia, Israel, the Russian Federation, and Slovenia. Welcome to you, with special wishes that you will join the OECD before long. I also welcome participants from Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Romania and South Africa, Your presence here, together with those of the FAO and the WTO, will ensure that our debates benefit from a broad perspective, better reflecting the globalised and complex world in which we live.

But let’s go back to the unprecedented challenges the global economy is facing.

Following the worst recession in the post-war period, the present recovery is still fragile. News on the employment front will continue to be bad throughout this year. The drop in potential output growth is probably more permanent than most governments care to admit. And the fiscal position is difficult in almost all of the OECD area. Meanwhile, we know that we are not going to meet the MDGs, and climate change and ageing challenges are looming.

The challenges are daunting, and if we are to solve them, we need to work together. If there is one silver lining in all of this, is that people realise, more than ever, the benefits of common action.
And that’s true for agriculture, as much as for other policy areas. Nobody has all the answers and nobody lives in splendid isolation. We are all inter-connected and any given change in a country’s policies can have a major impact elsewhere around the globe.

You are gathered here to discuss how as Ministers of Agriculture – and many of you have other areas of responsibility too – for the environment, natural resources, water, forestry, fisheries, and consumers – you can make sure that agriculture delivers what society expects from it. And the list is getting longer. Beyond concerns about environmental impacts, in many countries, the public is expressing new needs and expectations concerning the quality and safety of their food, and where and how it is produced. And there are the ever-present concerns about the income and well-being of farm households.

But what are the prospects for agriculture within this overall context?

I would argue that they are quite good. Resource constraints affecting water, land, and climate change pose major challenges, but booming demand from population growth, increased affluence in emerging markets, as well as increasing use of agricultural raw materials for producing energy are opportunities for the sector.

And what are the policy implications?

Let me first say that farmers in the past have shown a most extraordinary ability to respond to growing demand. One of the first things we can do today is to make sure that they continue to be able to do so. But it will also be the role of government to put in place the right incentive structures to make sure any increase in output is being produced sustainably and does not conflict with efforts to tackle climate change or with fiscal sustainability needs. Farmers in some parts of the world will need help to boost output. But we must make sure that the help they get is effective – that it works for them, and allows them to improve their prospects without continued reliance on public support.

Let me briefly address the question of what we can do to prepare the sector for the coming decades.
Innovation has been and will be a key contributor to solving the problems faced by the sector.
Innovation in my view is key – both wider application and dissemination of what we know already and new technologies and processes. For example, we already know the great potential of precision irrigation, minimum tillage, new improved seed varieties, and processes that lengthen the shelf life of foods, etc. I am sure we will talk a lot about this in the coming days, including this evening at dinner. The challenge to you is to ensure that innovation keeps flowing and that means getting the conditions right so that both private and public research and development can provide the solutions we need.

The OECD is focusing its attention on new sources of growth and job creation in the medium and long term. It is in this context that we will deliver the OECD Innovation Strategy to the Ministerial Council Meeting in May, and that we are working on a Green Growth Strategy to present to Ministers next year.
There is a key link between the flow of ideas and the flow of goods and services. And this brings me to the need for a strong, rules-based, and reliable multilateral trading system.

All the forecasts suggest that climate change will hit hardest in areas where production conditions are already difficult and food security already precarious. Trade is obviously part of the solution but we must make sure that trade is a reliable source of supply. The best multilateral trading system is a strong, rules-based one with a diversity of buyers and sellers which will be much less vulnerable to supply or demand shocks. But more open markets alone are insufficient. Policies also need to ensure that farmers around the world have the means to improve their supply capacity in response to new market opportunities. Again, I am sure this will be much discussed over the coming days.    

We are all concerned about the income and well-being of people who farm. With demand growing, the long-term decline in real agricultural prices is slowing and may even be reversed. But farmers will also have to cope with new demands and constraints. We should reflect further on the specific problems they will face and how they can be helped to overcome these problems. Will they face more uncertainty or volatility in prices and incomes? Do they need help to understand and apply the techniques and methods that will reconcile increased production with environmental and resource constraints? What types of relationships along the food chain would work best?

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen,
This meeting is a unique opportunity. You represent a huge share of the world’s producers and consumers of food and agricultural products. We are not here to go over old debates and quarrels or negotiate what has not yet been agreed elsewhere. We are here to define what we can do as policy makers to create a thriving, responsive, competitive agro-food sector capable of feeding a growing world and conserving natural resources for future generations. This is an exciting challenge. I look forward to your deliberations.


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