ROME, Italy -- The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 challenged the agriculture sector to resolve environmental problems such as land degradation, chemical pollution and loss of genetic resources. FAO took up the task of incorporating the principle of sustainability into the global development of the food and agriculture sector.

When the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) opens in Johannesburg, South Africa on 26 August, an FAO delegation led by Director-General Jacques Diouf will call for greater efforts to alleviate poverty and achieve food security through the sound use of natural resources. Jacques Paul Eckebil, Assistant Director-General of the Organization's Sustainable Development Department, sets the scene:

What is FAO's message to the World Summit on Sustainable Development?

We have three related messages. The first is that agriculture and the environment are intimately linked. For example, agriculture uses 70 percent of all fresh water worldwide. The planet cannot be managed sustainably without taking this relationship into account.

The second message is that strong political will and broad-based public support are prerequisites both to reduce hunger and to achieve sustainable agriculture and rural development. The third message is that fighting hunger sustainably needs more capital and human resources than low-income developing countries can afford. The Johannesburg Summit must promote a global effort to find the needed resources.

What do you think the Summit will achieve?

I have seen the principle of sustainability take root in FAO's development work since the 1992 Rio Summit -- a new way of thinking has evolved in quite a short time. The Johannesburg Summit, which brings together some of the most powerful and influential public and private figures in the world, will speed up this rate of change.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has identified five key areas for which he thinks agreement should be reached in Johannesburg -- water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity, known by the acronym WEHAB.

In terms of agriculture, FAO believes that the Summit has the power to make a number of real advances: to enhance future investment for improving agricultural productivity in poor rural communities and for developing and conserving natural resources important to agriculture; to expand rural infrastructure and market access; to strengthen national capacity to generate and disseminate agricultural knowledge; and to ensure access to food for the most needy.

The world will have to feed eight billion people in 2030. What new food production methods are available to accomplish this without harming the environment?

Ecosystem approaches to agriculture include such innovations as conservation agriculture, which ensures soil fertility through better nutrient cycling by micro-organisms in the soil, integrated pest management , which prevents pest outbreaks by encouraging naturally occurring predators, and organic agriculture.

The problem is that economic pressures often induce farmers to grow a particular crop in the most profitable way possible, leading them to ignore sustainable practices. Therefore, public policy needs to encourage and support sustainable agriculture. An ecosystem approach, which considers economic, social and ecological factors together, is the only way to prevent degradation of the environment.

What new initiatives will FAO bring to Johannesburg?

FAO is proposing an Anti-Hunger Programme with actions that reduce hunger through agriculture and rural development and providing wider access to food. The programme would require an additional public investment of an estimated US$24 billion annually, which we estimate would yield benefits worth at least US$120 billion per year as a result of longer, healthier and more productive lives for all those who gain from such improvements. This initiativeis in addition to the Organization's continuing work on the chapters of Agenda 21, the plan of action from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, for which we have been given responsibility.

FAO held its own summit in June, the World Food Summit: five years later, in order to renew the political will to reduce hunger by half by 2015. Is the goal of ending hunger relevant to the Johannesburg Summit?

We believe the Plan of Action from the 1996 World Food Summit provides an appropriate framework for many Johannesburg Summit initiatives by linking increased productivity and sustainable natural resource use directly to opportunities to reduce poverty and hunger. Put another way, without sustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the eradication of poverty and hunger will not be possible. Finally, the fight against poverty cannot be won without eliminating hunger, the most critical manifestation of poverty.

You head FAO's department responsible for sustainable development. How does FAO contribute to sustainable development?

We serve as a global reference centre for knowledge and advice on biophysical, biological, socio-economic, institutional and technological dimensions of sustainable development. We also coordinates FAO's follow-up to the Rio Summit and are responsible for important conventions on biological diversity, desertification and climate change. At Johannesburg, in partnership with major groups, civil society and governments, we will facilitate the launch of the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Initiative. We expect the initiative to result in concrete and measurable improvements in the livelihoods and living conditions of the rural poor over the next five years.