Water for food, water for ecosystems both essential

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands, January 31, 2005 (ENS): With more than 850 million people around the world living with chronic hunger and undernourishment, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today called for huge financial investments in water, agriculture and ecosystems to meet the goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015.

At the opening of the International Conference on Water for Food and Ecosystems in The Hague, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Deputy Director-General David Harcharik said investments in rainfed and irrigated agriculture are urgently needed "to produce more crop per drop" in countries suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

More than 30 ministers and some 500 delegates from 140 countries are attending the week-long meeting jointly hosted by the FAO and the government of The Netherlands.

"Water, food and ecosystems are three aspects of our global wellbeing that are so tightly bound that they have become critical for livelihoods, sustainable development and for political stability," Harcharik said. "These aspects deserve more attention than we currently devote to their description and understanding."

Investments in raising water productivity for staple foods or high value market crops should not irreparably degrade precious water resources and related ecosystems, he said in a keynote speech delivered on behalf of FAO Director-General Dr. Jacques Diouf.

The prime objective of the Water for Food and Ecosystems Conference is to help governments identify management practices and the necessary enabling environments that lead to sustainable water use at the river basin level, and the harmonization of food production and ecosystem management.

Agriculture and natural ecosystems are by far the biggest consumers of the Earth's freshwater and the competition between the two sectors for often scarce water resources is increasing, Harcharik said.

"Reconciling these competing claims on our natural resource heritage and achieving a balance between natural ecosystem and agricultural production within our river basins will be critical."

Humans have altered the carrying capacity of ecosystems through increased food production and other sectoral outputs, often neglecting the supply of goods of equal importance - clean water, timber, biodiversity or flood control.

The challenge demands all the talent and energy that humans can muster. Now approaching 6.5 billion people, the world population is expected to reach nine billion people by 2050. Food demand is expected to more than double in a similar time frame.

Some 30 percent of irrigated lands are already degraded, and water use is expected to increase by 50 percent over the next 30 years. Science based solutions for sustaining productivity increases while protecting ecosystems are key to addressing these challenges

In the urgency of providing food and water for those in need, care must still be taken with genetically modified crops to ensure their safety, said a consultation of experts convened by the FAO last week in Rome.

The consultation was organized in the light of the controversy and public concern over genetic modifications (GM), the FAO said.

FAO asked a group of agricultural scientists from many parts of the world to provide clear preliminary guidelines on the most accurate and scientifically sound approach to monitoring the environmental effects of existing GM crops.

"FAO's aim is to provide a tool to assist countries in making their own informed choices on the matter, as well as protect the productivity and ecological integrity of farming systems" said Louise Fresco, FAO assistant director-general of the Agriculture Department.

"The need to monitor both the benefits and potential hazards of released GM crops to the environment is becoming ever more important with the dramatic increase in the range and scale of their commercial cultivation, especially in developing countries," Fresco said.

The scientists recommended that any responsible deployment of GM crops needs to comprise the whole technology development process, from the pre-release risk assessment, to biosafety considerations and post release monitoring.

Environmental goals include the maintenance and protection of basic natural resources such as soil, water and biodiversity, they said.

The scientists view monitoring as the key element in generating the necessary knowledge to protect agro-systems, rural livelihoods and the broader ecological integrity.

Environmental organizations, farmers' groups and community organizations should be actively and continuously engaged in this process, the workshop agreed, as they are "absolutely intrinsic" to the system.

FAO officials offered to facilitate this process along with other agencies and national and international research centers, encouraging the adoption of rigorously designed monitoring programs.

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