Ladies and Gentlemen
I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today at the opening of the FAO Technical Expert Meeting on Aquatic biodiversity, its nutritional composition, and human consumption in rice-based systems. On behalf of the Director-General, Mr Jacques Diouf, I wish to welcome you to this Expert Meeting here at the Regional Representation for Asia and the Pacific of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Many of you will have celebrated with us the World Food Day 2004 which had the theme Biodiversity for food security. World Food Day 2004 highlighted our planet’s rich biological diversity and the vital role it plays in meeting the Millennium Development Goals to reduce hunger. Biological diversity is fundamental to agriculture and food production. People rely on the variety of food, shelter, and goods for their livelihood. It should be no surprise to us here in the region that a rich and important source of biological diversity is found in rice-based systems. Here in Asia, rice is the main staple food, but it is accompanied by a highly diverse assortment of other foodstuffs that are prepared in many ingenious ways. There is fish, of course, but many other sources of food and medicine are found in rice fields as well: shrimp, crabs, shellfish and snails, turtles, frogs and even insects and snakes are bred or caught in the wild to accompany the rice on the table. Traditionally, the farmers of the region make good use of this diversity, collecting the plants for vegetables or animal feeds and using the multitude of animals available in their fields as a cheap and easily accessible source of protein, fatty acids and other nutrients.
In light of this and to emphasize the importance of rice-based systems for nutrition world wide, the United Nations has declared this year the International Year of Rice.
FAO's mandate is to raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations and contribute to the growth of the world economy. There have been great achievements towards these goals, however, there are also serious problems. The world's biodiversity is under threat from human pressures, and this could severely compromise global food security. In today’s world, more than 840 million people remain hungry and still more suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Global efforts have so far been insufficient to reach the World Food Summit and related Millennium Development Goal of reducing the number of hungry by half by 2015. Modern attempts to increase the production of rice has given little thought to the diversity found naturally in the rice fields and has directed its attention solely to rice , Oryza sativa, the plant that provides the staple for millions of people here in Asia. While focusing on high yielding cultivars of rice and intensive agricultural practices in order to satisfy the dietary energy supply for the planet, we have lost sight of the importance of the natural diversity of the rice-based ecosystems and the micronutrient supply that these ecosystems provide for rural people. By taking away part of the food that traditionally accompanies rice at the table, we are depriving people of the range of nutrients that can only be found in a diverse diet. We must not forget that biodiversity is a key ally in fighting malnutrition. The role that aquatic biodiversity can play for human nutrition is in fact the topic of this workshop.
You have come together in this workshop to assess the importance of aquatic biodiversity for the nutrition of the rural people. You experts are well aware that the biodiversity in rice-based ecosystems forms a network of life in which each element is dependent to some extent on the others.
But what is the role that those insects, molluscs, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles and fish play for a balanced and healthy nutrition of the people? Some of you may know some of the answers, but in large, the answer is: We do not really know. And this should not be surprising, because there are considerable difficulties in finding out: a great variability exists within the ecosystems of the region, there is variability from one year to the next, there is variability from one place to the next in the supply of those organisms as well as variability in the extent of use even between farmers of the same village. Just as there are different nutritional values of rice cultivars, so too are there nutritional differences among frogs, fish, snakes, crustaceans and other animals. Some of these differences have been identified; many have not. Many people are involved in the collection of these organisms; they do this almost every day and collect only small quantities. How shall we assess the importance of these organisms for nutrition? Cost-efficient, reliable and easily applicable methods need to be developed in order to collect information in the region, and they need to be standardized in order to compare the results and bring them together in meaningful ways.
This is indeed a timely subject. You may be aware that FAO is the lead partner with the Convention on Biological Diversity on its programme of Agricultural Biodiversity. In a recent decision (Decision VII/32), the Conference of the Parties to the CBD recommended collaboration with the FAO and others to bring forward options for a cross-cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition. Furthermore, the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries suggests that “States should conduct research into and monitor human food supplies from aquatic systems and the environments from which they are taken…”(Article 12.8).
This workshop will address these important issues, and you will draw from the rich experiences of Experts and Resource Persons from the Region as well as from the staff of the Food and Nutrition Division and the Fishery Resources Division of FAO that have been involved in the organization and preparation of this workshop. I wish you all fruitful deliberations, a rich exchange of experiences, and conclusive findings in this important meeting.
Thank you for your attention.