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An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva

Freeing the planet from hunger: A mission that began 70 years ago in Quebec
By José Graziano da Silva on 10 November, 2015 


In the autumn of 1945, the governments of the world gave the fledgling United Nations its first major assignment: help a planet devastated by war feed itself again. Right here, in Quebec City, they signed the constitution that created the first ever UN specialized agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, to help make that happen.

Today we are rightfully celebrating that decision and celebrating FAO’s 70th birthday. Fewer than one in seven people in the world are hungry today, and food availability has grown by 40 percent per capita (versus 1945), even as the world’s population has tripled.

Yet we need to  do better. As we commemorate today, let us aim higher.  My goal, and that of FAO, is to prepare for a bigger celebration in 2030. Mark that date in your calendars, for that is when, according to a new resolution by world leaders, we will have eliminated hunger altogether.

That is a core pledge of the new Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations just a few weeks ago, and it is one that must be achieved for any of the others to succeed.

Sir John Boyd Orr, FAO’s first director general and a Nobel Prize-winning nutritionist, who once despaired that the vast majority of humanity was destined to go hungry, explained the need for the organization in simple and lasting terms: “Our aim is that every man, woman and child should have the food he needs to be truly healthy". He referred to this “great world plan” as one that would “put common sense into the affairs of men.”

He would have definitely appreciated today’s celebrations here in Canada, as well as applaud what we – FAO, its member states, and in particular the world’s farmers, fisher and forest folks – have done. FAO began operations amid post-war wreckage, only one year after its foundation to the Organization was faced with tackling looming food shortages in Asia...

Among its achievements throughout the decade, FAO played the lead role in eradicating Rinderpest, a persistent harbinger of calamity for livestock and the people who depend on them. Since 1990, out of 129 countries monitored by FAO, 73 have halved the proportion of their population who are hungry. 

That said, the international gathering taking place in Quebec City to mark FAO's founding is an opportunity to remind ourselves that humanity is not yet free from hunger and that FAO’s vision and mandate is just as urgent today as it was at inception.

Eradicating hunger – the new goal we have now set our sight on -- is different from reducing hunger. Eradicating hunger will require even more political will, social awareness: a universal effort. The good news is that the world is, technically, in a much better situation than we were 70 years ago.

For example, we have introduced codes of conduct for responsible fisheries, pesticide management and investments in agriculture. Formulated conventions assuring land tenure rights are not abused; devised systematic ways to subdue locust swarms and control viral livestock diseases; bolstered food safety standards with the Codex Alimentarius; and established the International Treat of Plant Genetic Resources to ensure the collection and storage of seeds of food crops and their precious wild relatives.

But our main challenge remains: to eradicate hunger and all forms of malnutrition. To do  so entails a number of steps, among which two broad challenges stand out.

First, we must quickly translate increases in food availability into better nutrition for all. FAO’s most obvious achievements have been on the food production side, but now nutrition must become a visible priority for all. While 800  million people remain hungry, those suffering from “hidden hunger” – caused by micronutrient deficiencies that can lead to stunting, blindness and retarded development – are almost three times as many, as are the ranks of people who are obese or overweight.

Investing in food systems to solve these problems makes much more sense than paying for the damage they cause. Importantly, this is a challenge that is emblematic of our time – it applies to rich and poor countries alike. After all, malnutrition, like poverty, is entirely man-made.

Second, we must work – and again, harder and faster – to alter food production and consumption and create a truly sustainable network stretching from soils and rural agriculture to urban kitchens and waste. The challenges here range from biodiversity and balancing our needs with limited natural resources all the way to climate change. But we know how to do it:  we have the technology and the tools to make it happen; to make it a reality.

So let the celebrations begin. We really can be the first Zero Hunger Generation!