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Message of the FAO Director-General

Agriculture and intercultural dialogue

"Agriculture and intercultural dialogue", the theme of this year's World Food Day, 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.

Throughout history, the intercultural movement of crops and livestock breeds revolutionized diets and reduced poverty. Africa gave the world coffee - now a popular beverage worldwide and a mainstay of Latin American agriculture. Asia domesticated rice - today the staple food for over half the world's population - and sugar cane, a major cash crop in many regions. The introduction of the camel to Africa from Arabia allowed people to live and travel in more extreme environments and contributed meat and milk to diets.

All of this happened centuries ago. How about agriculture today? FAO statistics show that at the start of the new millennium 2.57 billion people depended on agriculture, hunting, fishing or forestry for their livelihoods, including those actively engaged in those activities and their non-working dependants. They represent 42 percent of all human beings.

Agriculture powers the economies of most developing countries. In industrialized countries, agricultural exports alone were worth about US$290 billion in 2001. Historically, very few countries have experienced rapid economic growth and poverty reduction that has not been either preceded or accompanied by agricultural growth.

Such statistics look at agriculture only as an economic activity. Agriculture as a way of life, as heritage, as cultural identity, as an ancient pact with nature - has no price tag. Other important non-monetary contributions of agriculture include habitat and landscape, soil conservation, watershed management, carbon sequestration and conservation of biodiversity.

Most cultures, especially those in which the principal activity is agriculture, have profound religious beliefs, values and rituals concerning food and respect for 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 one another's point of view. In agriculture, this takes place through travel and migration, international institutions, and meetings and trade negotiations. It occurs every time an expert from one culture shows an expert from another something new in the laboratory or field - and gets feedback on its appropriateness in the local setting.

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 reduce the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by half by 2015, 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, partnership and support - including that of FAO and the international community - can surely lead to progress in achieving food security for all.

Photo credits: FAO/A. Wolstad.

Photo credits: FAO/G. Bizzarri.

Photo credits: FAO/G. Bizzarri.

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