The world's population is predicted to increase by about half in the coming 50 years to around 9.3 billion and to stabilize at approximately 10 billion by the end of the twenty-first century. In many countries, because of rural-urban migration, rural populations have already ceased to grow and rural and urban population numbers on a global scale are forecast to be equal by as soon as 2006. Particularly in those regions and countries in which population growth rates fall, an increase can be expected in per capita incomes, associated with a progressive fall in the number of people living in deep poverty. In many countries of Africa and parts of South Asia, however, there will be a drop in the proportion of people living in poverty, but absolute numbers are expected to grow, at least until 2030, if present trends continue.
These changes will occur in the context of greater interdependence between countries, owing to the unprecedented technological improvements in communications and transportation systems as well as to the rapid growth in international transactions. They imply that national policies are increasingly likely to have an impact on other countries, creating a need for greater understanding of the nature of interdependence, especially in the food and agriculture sector.
The fact that the first MDG calls for the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger is of immense significance for FAO, given the growing recognition that hunger is both a cause and an effect of poverty. In many developing countries in which a large proportion of the population remains chronically undernourished, bringing down the incidence of hunger will open the door for faster economic growth, improving the prospects for poverty reduction.
The eradication of hunger, which has eluded humanity from the birth of history and is so central to the purpose of FAO, is undoubtedly a wholly attainable goal in this century. But it will not be achieved with a "business-as-usual" approach. Eradicating hunger needs deliberate and concerted action on a very large scale, led by governments but with the full participation of society as a whole. Reductions in the number of hungry will be achieved more quickly by countries that adopt policies that ensure a more equitable distribution of the benefits of economic growth. In countries where there is a concentration of food-insecure households in rural areas, an important part of the solution will lie in expanding small-farmer agricultural incomes and promoting off-farm development. Here, however, the emphasis should not be on promoting large technology leaps by relatively few farmers but, at least in the first instance, on empowering millions of poor rural people to take up quite simple changes that lie within their reach and result in immediate livelihood and nutrition improvements. This is in line with the thinking of FAO's founders who noted that "The arithmetic of progress is like the arithmetic of mass merchandising: a small profit per customer multiplied by a sufficient number of customers gives a large total."
Progress towards hunger eradication will be accelerated by putting in place safety nets that ensure that those households that cannot normally either produce or afford to buy their food needs have enough to eat, and those that have enough to eat but are driven by crises into hunger are not obliged to dispose of their limited assets at such times. Such safety nets are likely to assume greater importance in countries in which poverty and food insecurity are concentrated in urban centres. They may take different forms but must be designed in ways that are not dependence-inducing or market-distorting but are carefully targeted so that most of the benefits reach the people most in need and costs are contained.
Eradicating hunger and thereby enabling the poorest people to participate in economic processes does not constitute welfare expenditure but rather an investment that no country aspiring to high rates of sustainable growth can afford not to make. Increasingly, both poor and rich countries are recognizing that putting an end to hunger on a global scale is not only a question of human rights but is also in their own self-interest as it will make for a more prosperous and safe world. It was the vision of FAO's founders that the Organization was born out of the interdependent needs for peace and for freedom from want: "the conquest of hunger and the attainment of the ordinary needs of a decent, self-respecting life" must remain the Organization's first objective.
Fortunately for most of humanity, the world's demands for food and for forest products have been successfully met throughout FAO's lifetime, but this has been at vast environmental and social costs that in many cases have been neither counted nor paid for. This is of particular significance to agriculture, forestry and fisheries because of their heavy dependence on natural resource use and on the work of many of the most vulnerable members of the world's population.
Thus, huge tracts of primary forests have been destructively logged, put under the plough or converted into low-intensity grazing, reducing biological and cultural diversity, and destroying the habitat of indigenous people. Millions of hectares of once-fertile lands have been irrigated but without the necessary investment in drainage, with the result that they have become saline and unproductive. Many countries are facing severe water shortages and, in others, both surface and underground water resources are increasingly polluted by nitrates leached from fertilizers and by pesticides. Paradoxically, the success of plant and livestock breeders in selecting better-performing crops and animals is contributing to erosion in agricultural biodiversity, narrowing the range of varieties and breeds on which future breeding programmes will depend. Marine fish stocks have been depleted through overfishing. Methane gas emissions from flooded paddy fields and intensive livestock systems are contributing to climate change.
One of the other significant results of the rapid growth in agricultural production has been a pronounced long-term fall in commodity prices. When these are reflected in reductions in retail prices, large numbers of low-income consumers stand to benefit. But, at the same time, this long-term decline in prices has eroded the incomes of producers, especially in developing countries which, for structural and institutional reasons, have been unable to make comparable reductions in production costs. In a globalized market, the farmer with one hectare of land under hoe-based cultivation becomes a direct competitor with the capital-intensive farmer who single-handedly cultivates hundreds of hectares under mechanized farming systems, often benefiting from subsidies and other price-distorting measures. Similarly, the attempt by some countries to shield their producers from global market developments such as trend decreases in prices and market instability, imply greater burdens on those countries and producers that cannot afford such policies. The resultant economic and social pressures have a devastating impact on many rural societies. Growing interdependence also implies that many shared resources may be overexploited in the quest for faster growth, if not managed according to practices agreed among concerned countries. This threat applies to many resources of great importance for food and agriculture, including water, marine resources, forests and environmental resources, and to climate.
These issues are of fundamental importance for the long-term sustainability of the earth's fragile ecosystems and to the conditions of life, especially for indigenous peoples, in rural areas, and hence for the future well-being of humanity, as FAO's founders recognized. They require a concerted effort among the organizations of the UN system, international research institutions and the private sector to devise production, processing and distribution systems that are truly sustainable in the sense that, while meeting the needs of all of the world's population, they no longer damage or deplete the world's natural resources, accelerate climate change or impoverish rural society in both cultural and economic terms.