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World leaders urge FAO to pursue rights, equality and social protection

Conference opens with lecture on the lessons from Brazil’s landmark “Zero Hunger” campaign

6 June 2015, Rome - FAO's 39th Conference opened today, with representatives from 194 countries including more than 130 ministers gathered to discuss the Organization's future workplan, set a new two-year budget, and elect the next FAO Director-General.

President Sergio Mattarella of Italy, FAO's host country, opened the proceedings with a speech describing the right to food as a core component of the basic right to life, and warning that true peace will never be achieved unless poverty and malnutrition are vanquished.

He commended FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva for intensifying the agency's focus on sustainability, an objective undermined by social rifts and inequalities but one that should be seen as "the frontier of innovation rather than as an obstacle to growth.

Mattarella also forcefully argued that issues such as climate change, natural resource limits and food and energy insecurity have consequences that cross borders and will require policy makers to adopt a rights-based approach at key summits on development finance, greenhouse-gas emissions and new United Nations goals later this year.

"The world has changed and the time has come for us to pool our resources," he said. "We all have to go the extra mile, otherwise global governance will be impossible."

Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, also spoke, stressing the need to foster efficient and inclusive food systems while urging governments to push back against rising calls for protectionism in international commodity markets and to broaden their anti-hunger programs to tackle new nutritional problems such as obesity.

Reflecting on Latin America's success in reducing hunger over the past decade, she emphasized the importance of gender equality, saying "women hold the keys to food security" and emphasizing the importance of empowering rural women and indigenous communities. "The role of the state is not just to eradicate hunger but to take up the struggle to tackle inequality in all its forms," she said. "Only in this way can we fix things."

The Conference's opening session was chaired by Le Mamea Ropati, Samoa's minister of agriculture, who noted that FAO's work in providing technical advice and development assistance has helped many of the poorest people living in the world's smaller countries.

The two heads of state were followed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, who delivered the biennial Frank McDougall lecture, named for an Australian economist who helped found FAO.

Lula da Silva discussed the lessons learned from the ground-breaking Zero Hunger program he implemented in 2003 after being elected, which led to a sharp improvement of general welfare in the country, where fewer than 5 percent are hungry today, down from 20 percent when he took office.

Noting that FAO's Graziano da Silva served as chief architect and the first minister of the Zero Fome program , Lula emphasized that the initially controversial idea of cash transfers to the poor has since led tens of millions out of a poverty trap -- at the cost of only 0.5 percent of Brazil's gross domestic product.

"This is the first generation of Brazilians that hasn't had to face the drama of hunger," he said in a passionate description of how "income transfer to the poorest ends up being very beneficial to the country as a whole."

He stressed the need for political will to prioritize and guarantee steady resources in national budgets to combine food, health and education schemes with support for small-scale family farmers, rigorous civil registrars to ensure efficiency and transparency, policies that raise wages and "treating the poor not as statistical data but as humans, men, women and children."

FAO, Lula said, should serve as a sounding board for other countries to learn about best practices as world leaders negotiate a post-2015 development agenda.

"We have never been so close to realizing the dream of ending hunger," he said. "We have the material resources... we have the powerful moral argument... and we also have the practical proof that it's possible."

Photo: ©FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto
FAO's Plenary Hall

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