The ministerial session of the UN regional body ESCAP -- the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific -- has opened in Bangkok. As the prices of staples soar in the region, food security is likely to dominate the talks, attended by representatives from 58 regional governments. ESCAP also wants to become a major forum for development debate.
The higher price of rice and other staples could hurt global growth and security, says UN
The pressing issue of food security is top of the agenda at the six-day ministerial meeting in the Thai capital, Bangkok. Amid global warnings of food shortages and escalating prices, the United Nations in the Asia-Pacific want to discuss viable solutions.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this week that higher food prices threatened to wipe out progress towards reducing poverty and could hurt global growth and security.
The region’s key staple, rice, has seen prices escalate in recent months, threatening to plunge even more people into poverty, on top of the 640 million people already in poverty across Asia and the Pacific.
Unfocused economic growth
The Executive Secretary for the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Noeleen Heyzer, said ahead of the summit that the urgency over food security was a result of the fact that economic growth has focused on non-agricultural sectors and there have been official policy oversights:
“Because much of this growth has been centred on urban areas and in the townships it has been terrible for the agricultural sector. You have countries, for example India, where the overall growth rate is 9 percent but the agricultural sector’s is 2.2 percent.”
She added that the lack of investment had forced farmers into agricultural debt, which had led to a high level of suicides.
Several reasons for food crisis
Heyzer named several reasons for the food crisis: “The food prices are largely due to the changing patterns of our climate -- there have been droughts in Australia for instance.”
“There is different land use now because of the whole process of urbanisation. Land is used increasingly for plantations and for bio-fuels.”
“There is a growing middle class and a wealthy population that is changing its food intake as well as its food patterns.”
ESCAP has come under criticism over the past decade as member governments have called for reform. Heyzer says reform is part of her agenda for the regional organisation too. She especially wants to raise its profile.
“There are different roles I would like ESCAP to play,” Heyzer explained. “One is to be a platform where policy dialogues on difficult issues that need deeper understanding are discussed -- problems in search of solutions or a consensus. Secondly, ESCAP is the regional hub of the whole Asia-Pacific region and it promotes cooperation among countries of this region to engage in and with a more inclusive and sustainable development.”
Heyzer also said a major sign of the region’s economic progress since the financial crisis of a decade ago was evident in Asia’s underlying economic strength given the present uncertainties facing international financial markets. “Regional cooperation can lead to greater growth and stability at a global level.”
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific is the regional development arm of the United Nations for the Asia-Pacific region. Its work focuses on poverty reduction, managing globalisation and tackling emerging social issues. The ministerial meeting runs to April 30 in Bangkok.