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The stubborn persistence of hunger and poverty raises what are perhaps the most burning ethical questions of our age. Freeing humanity from hunger and malnutrition is a moral obligation that weighs on us more and more heavily as our capabilities and technologies advance. The world undoubtedly has the productive capacity to produce adequate quantities of nutritious food for all, yet gross inequities in people's access to resources, opportunities and - not least - fair representation perpetuate the hunger and deprivation of more than 800 million people today.

Technological advances and organizational changes affecting food and agriculture systems over the past years have been both radical and rapid; their repercussions, however, will be felt for a long time to come and, in many cases, the consequences may be irreversible. Whether they be as specific as individual food production techniques, or as broad as the effects of globalized international trade, such changes have refocused attention on fundamental human rights, including the right to sufficient - and safe - food. Science continues to broaden our horizons, offering us new options that invariably give rise to controversy. Not surprisingly, recent developments have brought to the fore numerous ethical issues that are central to food security and to sustainable rural development and natural resource management; they are therefore of prime concern to FAO.

FAO has an obligation to ensure that its actions are responsible, transparent and accountable, thus ethical considerations are inherent in the Organization's programmes. In respect of the human right to democratic participation, for example, in all of its activities FAO seeks to foster equity and the free and meaningful involvement of all stakeholders. It advocates the sustainable management of natural resources and - with regard to food production and processing technologies in particular - the containment of risks to human health, today and in the future. The Organization's very mission - helping to build a food-secure world for present and future generations - implies the promotion of sustainability, which is itself of major ethical significance.

It is also FAO's duty to facilitate debate and dialogue concerning ethics and human rights in fields related to its sphere of work - examples of salient areas being genetic resources, biotechnology applications and biosecurity issues. With the aim of stimulating international discussion and deepening the general understanding of key ethical issues, we are now launching a specific publications series to treat this multifaceted subject. The present publication, the first in the series, introduces ethical questions as they relate to FAO's mandate and describes a vision for building an ethical and equitable food and agriculture framework. Based on respect for the diversity of human value systems and designed to enhance public health and well-being as well as environmental conservation, such a framework should be an ongoing participatory process; it should evolve over time in response to fresh knowledge, changes in objectives and new ethical issues raised by FAO and its partners - including consumers and producers.

The importance attached to the ethical dimension of FAO's programmes is manifest in the formal designation of ethics as a priority area for interdisciplinary action across the Organization. To provide guidance and determine the scope of ethical issues relevant to our mandate, I have set up an internal FAO Committee on Ethics in Food and Agriculture. In addition, I have established an entirely independent Panel of Eminent Experts, both to advise the Organization and raise public awareness and understanding. It is my hope, furthermore, that ethical concerns will be integrated into debates within FAO's governing bodies as well as in other intergovernmental fora. I believe these initiatives are crucial to furthering the integration of ethical considerations in decisions regarding global food security and poverty alleviation.

Jacques Diouf
FAO Director-General

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