The last years of the twentieth century were generally unfavourable for world food and agriculture. The State of Food and Agriculture 2000 reports only very modest growth in world agricultural production in 1998, and the estimates for 1999 do not appear to indicate any improvement. Particularly for the developing countries, where the performance of the agricultural sector is of special concern, prospects for 1999 are for a noticeable slowdown in crop and livestock production - reflecting a negative trend that is now in its third consecutive year. It has been a difficult period for many of these countries, which have been facing unusually adverse climatic conditions, together with the negative economic impact of the financial crisis that erupted in 1997, declining prices of several of their major commodity exports and, in a number of cases, political instability and conflicts. Food supply disruptions associated with these problems have led to the outbreak or persistence of serious food emergency situations in a large number of countries - currently more than 30 - around the world.
The close of a millennium is an opportune time for studying the past with a view to seeking lessons for the future. In its special chapter, "World food and agriculture: lessons from the past 50 years", The State of Food and Agriculture 2000 reflects on humankind's achievements and failures in fighting poverty and hunger over the past half-century - a theme that stimulates both historic and prospective thought.
Overall, the past 50 years have been a period of unprecedented progress on many fronts. Major gains have been achieved by all developmental yardsticks - real income, life expectancy, infant survival and levels of education and nutrition. Science and technology have changed the daily lives of many beyond anything imagined in the mid-1900s; people with even modest means today can hope for better health care, mobility and communications than the richest in those days; some diseases that had afflicted humankind since time immemorial have disappeared; humans and their machines are now routinely voyaging into outer space; and innovations in computer and information technology are succeeding each other at a bewildering pace, at once offering answers to our practical problems and introducing profound changes to social and economic interactions and people's behaviour.
Among our achievements has been progress in fighting world hunger. Undernourishment, especially in populous Asian countries, has diminished, with initial constraints of gigantic dimensions and complexity successfully overcome. Famine, a threat that is as old as humankind and has claimed millions of deaths even in recent decades, now only occurs in exceptional circumstances - mostly in the case of war and conflict in countries already suffering from serious problems of undernutrition and institutional capacity.
Yet, the past 50 years have also left a backlog of unresolved problems, new challenges, risks and uncertainties. We must pose serious questions about the meaning and scope of our economic and technological achievements and their cost to us and future generations. Our technological and economic gains overall appear sadly ironic when contrasted with the squalor and hopelessness in which a large segment of humankind continues to live. More than 800 million people - 13 percent of the world's population - still lack access to the food they need and are therefore condemned to short and unfulfilled lives.
Observers of our time have termed it variously an "information", "atomic" and "globalization" age. It can also be characterized, sadly, as an age of "inequity". Indeed, it is difficult to find a more apt discription for a world in which disparities and inequities are as striking as they are unjustified - a world in which the poorest 20 percent of the population accounts for slightly more than 1 percent of global income, while the richest 20 percent claims 86 percent. We also find it hard to conceive of safe and civilized future societies in which such disparities would be allowed to widen further - a tendency that is, however, suggested by certain aspects of the evidence before us. For instance, between 1960 and 1994, the income ratio between the richest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent inceased from 30:1 to 78:1.1 Beyond these broad statistics are pervasive inequities and disparities - among and within countries - between rural and urban populations, between ethnic and minority groups, between women and men. The concept of inequity can also be seen in its intergenerational dimension: the culture of consumerism, on the one hand, and survival strategies of the poor, on the other, have often resulted in environmental damage that compromises the capacities and potential of future generations.
Inequities can also be found within agricultural and rural societies. It is a well-known fact that the poorest tend to be concentrated in rural areas, and this feature stubbornly persists. Within agriculture itself, this publication highlights the growing technological, productivity and income gaps between modern and traditional farming systems - a process that is leading to a progressive pauperization of small-scale farmers, who cannot possibly compete with modern capitalized farms in an increasingly open world economy.
There are powerful forces behind the trend of growing inequality. The ongoing process of globalization and market liberalization may unleash opportunities for all, but more so for those who have the resources, information and expertise to benefit from them.
We are convinced, however, that the battle against inequity, poverty and hunger can be won. The State of Food and Agriculture 2000 advocates ways out of the "poverty trap" in which governments and institutional structures play a major role. It is fundamental that the public sector does not relinquish its role as provider of basic social services and does not neglect the poor and vulnerable, and it is crucial that it creates an institutional framework that unleashes and protects people's initiative and rewards their efforts. The publication also underlines the obvious but often neglected fact that, because the poor and undernourished are heavily concentrated in rural areas, any serious effort to alleviate their plight must necessarily begin with agricultural and rural development. The fact that many of the poor are staple food producers points to a clear policy orientation - that of helping the poor to produce more and better-quality staple food more efficiently in order to take the first step out of poverty. Painfully learned lessons show the importance of observing these simple policy principles.
Amazing gains have been achieved in agricultural productivity over the past half-century, thanks to progress in technology and expertise. The major challenge now is to reduce the technological gap by adapting improved technologies, old and new, to the local conditions and needs of low-income food-deficit countries as well as to specific areas within countries.
This does not mean that scientific research for new technological avenues should not be intensified. Indeed, it should. Biotechnology, in particular, holds much promise for the future, and its application in agriculture is still in its infancy. Its development, however, must be undertaken with full consideration of ethical issues as well as of quality and safety-related risks.
The general conclusion to be drawn from our experience of the past 50 years is that much has been achieved in reducing hunger in the world, but still much more remains to be done if the scourge of hunger is to be eradicated. The necessary technology and sufficient resources exist today. Therefore, if we do not fulfil our commitment to eradicate hunger, we will have no excuse to offer to new generations other than that of ignorance, shortsightedness and selfishness.
1 World Resources Institute. 1998. World Resources 1998-99, p. 145. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.