One of the most vital challenges facing the world's leaders as the dawn of a new millennium approaches is the fight against hunger, malnutrition and the absence of food security in so many countries. At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, leaders of 186 countries pledged themselves to reduce by at least half the number of undernourished people in the world - currently more than 800 million - by 2015. To achieve this target and also to secure the increases in food production needed to feed a world population likely to grow by three billion in the coming three decades, one priority must be the development of new agricultural models. For more than half a century the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has been providing its Member Nations with the normative and operational services they require to carry on the crucial fight against hunger and food insecurity.
The work that FAO carries out under its mandate falls broadly into six categories, five of which may be described as normative and are examined in this paper, and one, the provision of technical assistance, which is operational. The normative activities cover: setting up, maintaining and constantly updating databases of statistical information; providing a world centre of knowledge, information and expertise; providing a neutral forum for policy dialogue among nations and for the preparation of international agreements; developing international norms, standards and conventions; and disseminating information in support of Member Nations.
It would be hard to imagine a world without FAO's ubiquitous statistics. In a single month, November 1997, FAO's statistical database on the World Wide Web was accessed more than 2.1 million times, with more than nine million individual records downloaded. The need for a reliable source of statistics related to agriculture was recognized early this century. Growing intercontinental trade in food, the need to control plant- and animal-borne diseases, the prevention of famines and resulting socio-political calamities, all demanded a neutral body to collect statistics from all countries.
The pioneering work of David Lubin led to the foundation in 1905 of FAO's forerunner, the International Agricultural Institute, with 40 Member Nations. The Institute carried out the first World Agricultural Census in 1930, repeating the exercise ten years later. FAO took up the torch in 1950. Today, FAO's wealth of statistical data on agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural development constitutes a vital resource for the Organization's 175 Member Nations.
Knowledge and expertise
FAO's staff include an internationally selected corps of technical experts and scientists whose skills, knowledge and experience are available to Member Nations, enabling them to benefit from lessons learned and concepts derived from more than 50 years of cumulative effort. It is the quality of this human resource that enables FAO to develop and disseminate new concepts, methodologies and models for agricultural development. The breadth and depth of the technical base mean that the Organization is uniquely placed to propose multidisciplinary, holistic solutions.
FAO also works to improve regional coordination, particularly in the management of shared resources. For example, through its programme for technical cooperation among developing countries, FAO identifies opportunities for countries to share expertise and technical resources.
A neutral forum
The key factor that makes all of FAO's normative activities universally acceptable is the Organization's ability to provide a neutral forum for discussions of policy and for preparing, negotiating and concluding international agreements. This neutrality also gives a unique value to FAO's many expert consultations, conferences, seminars, training sessions and similar activities; FAO has no national products to sell, no national or regional policies to defend, no ideological positions to foster.
This neutral environment is the only one in which so many conventions and standards relating to food and agriculture could have been agreed. The World Food Summit of November 1996 was so important because so many heads of state and government and senior policy-makers were able to come together at a neutral venue, assess the data on a global basis and agree on a plan of action that truly reflected a world consensus. A neutral forum is the sine qua non for international agreements and concerted cooperation; if FAO did not exist, it would be necessary to invent something very similar to secure the hundreds of international agreements covering food and agricultural matters today.
Norms, standards and conventions
Indeed, a considerable amount of FAO's activity involves the development of codes, norms and conventions. FAO's recognized position as a centre of excellence on a wide range of food and agricultural issues, coupled with its ability to marshal information and knowledge on a global basis, gives it a unique advantage in this area. Thus, for example, food processing around the world is shaped by the standards established in compliance with Codex Alimentarius and numerous important conventions negotiated by the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
It is hard to imagine policy-makers reaching agreements on fishing or logging limits required to conserve stocks and ensure sustainability, without internationally established means such as those that FAO can provide to measure catches or volumes of extraction. Likewise, it would have been virtually impossible to succeed in coordinating national policies to control one of the world's oldest agricultural plagues, the desert locust. FAO's Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases (EMPRES) programme has provided the necessary normative framework and scientific foundation for policy-makers to achieve the level of international cooperation required to tackle the plague successfully.
Spreading the word
All this knowledge and information would be of limited value if it were not readily available to those who need it to make their policies and decisions. Thus, information dissemination is a key part of the normative role of FAO. The Organization is currently consolidating more than 40 separate databases under the umbrella of the World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT). The Centre is already providing clients -including governments, research institutes, universities and private users - with fast, economical access to the information they require, using a range of media: floppy disks, CD-ROMs and mainframe tapes as well as on-line access through the Internet, computer networks and telephone lines.