Dr Kittichai Triratanasirichai, President of Khon Kaen University
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure and honour for me to be here with you today. On behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and on my own behalf, I wish to express my gratitude for the successful organization of the meeting.
Ladies and gentlemen,
FAO’s mission is to strive for a world free of hunger and malnutrition where food and agriculture contribute to improving the living standards of all, especially the poor, in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner. In this light, I should firstly like to review the present state of food and agriculture in the world, and in Asia.
State of Food and Agriculture
While living in a world of plenty, the scourge of hunger and malnutrition remains amid us. FAO estimates that there are 925 million people, about one-seventh of the world’s population, going to bed hungry. In developing countries, one out of four children under the age of five is underweight and one in three children have low height with respect to their age (stunted) due to chronic undernutrition. Two billion people suffer from serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and it is estimated that 10 million children die before their 5th birthday every year, with one third of these deaths associated with undernutrition.
At the other side of the coin, overweight, obesity and associated chronic diseases are rising rapidly in low and middle income countries, made possible by rising incomes and urbanization, and access to cheap energy-dense nutrient-poor foods and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. It is estimated that around 43 million children under five years of age are overweight, and obesity affects around 500 million adults, increasingly in low and middle income countries, with consequences ranging from increased risk of premature death to serious chronic health conditions that reduce the overall quality of life.
The co-existence of overnutrition with non-communicable and chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers and under nutrition alongside micronutrient deficiencies is termed “the multiple burden of malnutrition”.
Feeding the World
While the world produces enough food today to feed every one, FAO is concerned that – at the present rate of production increases, might not be able to feel a world population estimated to reach 9.1 million by 2050. Prevailing constrains to increased food production are plenty: available lands fully exploited; progressing scarcity of water; impact of climate change (floods, cyclones, ...) and the continuing degradation of natural resource base.
In addition, a number of macroeconomic factors do not bode well, such as high and volatile prices for crude oil; increased competition for land and water; and the food versus energy nexus.
Against this backdrop, FAO is advocating the need to maximize food production in a sustainable manner. The time for action is now, and we can no longer afford to wait.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Around 100 000 plant species for food, fibre, forage, fuel, crafts, industrial, cultural and medicinal purposes were used many years ago. At least 7 000 cultivated species are still in use today around the world. However, over the past more than 100 years, with increased contacts between disparate human populations and the development of a global trading system, 30 or so crop species have become the basis of most of the world’s agriculture.
The focus of research and crop improvement on a few widely used species has helped meet the food needs of the rapidly growing human population, but it has narrowed dramatically the number of species upon which global food security and agricultural incomes depend.
Food consumption and production systems must achieve more with less, inter alia by shifting to nutritious diets with a smaller environmental footprint, and reducing food losses and waste throughout the food system. There is a need urgent action to promote a more diverse portfolio of species used in agriculture.
Against prevailing negative attitudes towards traditional indigenous foods – often termed food of the poor – FAO and partners are encouraging a revaluation of forgotten and neglected foods which are largely underutilized.
The declining number of species upon which food security and economic growth depend has placed the future supply of food and rural incomes at risk. The shrinking portfolio of species and varieties used in agriculture reduces the ability of farmers to adapt to ecosystem changes, new environments, needs and opportunities.
Besides the policy emphasis on staple food (rice and wheat) and consumer preferences for a limited range of food products – most outspokenly observed in youth and in urban areas – FAO advocates increased attention to tap underutilized food resources produced on poor lands (wet lands, swamps) by the poor; as well as abandoned traditional / indigenous food resources, not looked after well by policy makers, researches, development partners, …
Ladies and gentlemen,
Stemming the Tide of Neglect
Why we are promoting underutilized indigenous food resources? They directly contribute to local food availability and access by the poor. Many neglected and underutilized species are nutritionally rich and are adapted to low input agriculture. The use of these species – whether wild, managed or cultivated – can have immediate consequences on the food security and well-being of the poor.
The use of wilds plants has long been an intimate part of local cultures and traditions. Many neglected and underutilized species play a role in keeping cultural diversity alive. They occupy important niches, adapted to the risky and fragile conditions of rural communities.
Ethnobotanic surveys confirm that hundreds of such species are still to be found in many countries, representing an enormous wealth of agrobiodiversity that has the potential to contribute to improved incomes, food security and nutrition. However, these locally important species are frequently neglected by research and development.
The primary challenge is help stakeholders to establish priorities for research, development and conservation actions on neglected and underutilized species.
Growing demand from consumers in developed and developing countries for diversity and novelty in foods is creating new market niches for neglected and underutilized species. These market opportunities can generate additional income.
Our present meeting is an important step in bringing together scientists, researchers, partners, government to exchange experiences and identify success stories and draw up action plan to maximize the production and consumption of valuable underutilized and indigenous foods in order to enhance food security in the world.
Go local. Enhance local food security; and maximize the utilization of locally available foods. These are a few of the key issues you will be addressing over the next two days.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the University of Khon Kaen, Thailand National Council for Science, Japanese International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences, Crop for the Future Initiative for their support in organizing this meeting.
I wish you all a productive meeting.