The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations celebrates World Food Day each year on 16 October, the day on which the Organization was founded in 1945. The World Food Day and TeleFood theme for 2005, "Agriculture and intercultural dialogue", recalls the contribution of different cultures to world agriculture and argues that sincere intercultural dialogue is a precondition for progress against hunger and environmental degradation.
Although the substitution of farming and livestock raising for hunting and gathering as the main mode of food production - the birth of agriculture - occurred independently in many parts of the world around 10 000 years ago, the history of agriculture is full of examples of important intercultural exchanges. The first archeological record of farming in Europe shows advanced tool technology but provides no evidence of simpler tools. One theory is that peoples from the Middle East brought their tools and technologies to Europe. Similar movements of farming peoples are thought to have occurred in Africa, Central and South America, China, India and Southeast Asia. Why did they move? Agriculture provided a more dependable source of food, causing populations to increase; eventually excess population migrated to new lands.
Photo credits: FAO/K. Pratt.
Photo credits: FAO/R.Faidutti.
Photo credits: Kesara Aotarayakul.
Throughout history, the intercultural movement of crops and livestock breeds revolutionized diets and reduced poverty. For example, the introduction of the potato, which can be grown quickly and economically, to northern Europe from South America in the sixteenth century helped free the masses from age-old hunger. Maize, which is originally from the Americas, now feeds much of Africa. Europe and Africa contributed their plants to the Americas, including coffee, grapes and wheat. The introduction of the camel to Africa from Arabia allowed people to live and travel in more extreme environments and contributed protein from meat and milk to diets.
But intercultural dialogue is more than transferring technologies, seeds and breeds. Many cultures, especially those in which the principal activity is agriculture, have profound religious beliefs, values and rituals concerning food and the environment. Lessons are there to be learned by other cultures that are striving to feed growing populations while sustaining the resource base on which future generations will depend for sustenance.
Intercultural dialogue in the broadest sense occurs every time people from different cultures meet and listen to each other's point of view. With agriculture, it takes place at meetings and trade negotiations and every time an expert from one culture shows another something new in the laboratory or field - and gets feedback on its appropriateness in the local setting.
Photo credits: FAO/S. Hood.
Photo credits: FAO/Xie Mingde.
Photo credits: Kesara Aotarayakul.
In agricultural research, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research should be mentioned. With centres around the world staffed with researchers from many cultures, the Group has been responsible for improved crop varieties and farming methods that have had a profound impact on hunger.
Intercultural dialogue between developing countries facing similar food and agriculture problems makes perfect sense. South-South cooperation in the form of sharing of expertise and technologies has resulted in the transfer of many solutions suited to local conditions.
Open-minded dialogue is important between different cultures in the same country. Indigenous peoples have highly evolved systems, often based on gender, for managing livestock and crop genetic resources. Government planners and policy-makers sometimes overlook this traditional knowledge. The two groups should listen to each other so that policies and programmes integrate the best of the new with the best of tradition.
For thousands of years, farmers, particularly in developing countries, have developed the crop and animal genetic diversity on which food security everywhere depends. Dialogue between rich and poor countries in the form of negotiations on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture led to the recognition of farmers' rights and the establishment of a multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing.
At the international level, many societies feel threatened by one form of intercultural dialogue: world trade. Poor farmers cannot compete in an international market place if their goods are shut out of richer countries, while subsidized farm produce from industrialized countries is sold at or even below production cost in poor countries. Many developing countries want to produce for export purposes, but will not reach their full potential until further dialogue among nations leads to a fairer trading system.
More than 850 million people around the world remain hungry. At the World Food Summit held in Rome in 1996 and again at the World Food Summit: five years later in 2002, leaders vowed to reduce that number by half by 2015. Moreover, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals commit world leaders to reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, while ensuring environmental sustainability.
Many international initiatives and civil society networks, such as the International Alliance Against Hunger, are promoting intercultural dialogue to help achieve these goals. World Food Day provides an opportunity at the local, national and international levels to further dialogue and enhance solidarity. Human and cultural ingenuity, the right vision, partnerships and support - including that of FAO and the international community - can surely lead to progress in achieving food security for all.