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PEOPLE HAVE ALWAYS had to compete with nature for their food. The idyllic picture of a Garden of Eden, where gatherers and traditional farmers are at one with nature, does not exist. The actual situation is a constant struggle against the vagaries of climate, weed infestations and disease. The natural equilibrium of ecosystems is achieved through an unremitting battle between species competing for territory and survival. This battle has long been - and still is being - influenced by human interference through agriculture and forest management which alter the natural landscape, favouring certain species at the expense of others and distorting ecosystems to meet human needs. The question is whether population, and whether the ecological balance and the productive capacity of natural resources can be maintained without creating a conflict between man and nature. We need to know what principles and strategies can be used to ensure harmonious co-existence; how to proceed from nature's spontaneous balance to an equilibrium that is capable of meeting the needs of a given population; how to safeguard and enhance the productive potential of the natural resource base.

Edouard Saouma Director-General, FAO

For as long as technology kept pace with human population growth it was possible to maintain a symbiosis between agriculture and the forces of nature. However, the rapid increase in world population during the past 50 years, and the accelerated pace of technological progress, have resulted in the taming of nature in some parts of the world at the risk of its destruction. It is imperative that we determine the thresholds of tolerance for human interference, and the extent to which agriculture and nature can interact acceptably. The first priority is to feed the world's population. How can hungry people be expected to protect natural resources and the environment. and concern themselves with the well-being of future generations, when their immediate survival is at stake?

Of course, resources must be used better, appropriate technologies must be developed, soil must be protected, genetic resources conserved, water resources better managed and the toxic effects of pest control avoided. All these technical recommendations were voiced 20 years ago at the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June 1972. They are even more pertinent today, and should continue to feature in any strategy for the sustainable development of agriculture. However, they have clearly not been enough, nor will they be enough to resolve future problems. Our ability to come up with formulas to reconcile agricultural development with environmental protection depends first and foremost on the status of agriculture and of farmers in our society.

Agriculture performs a vital public function: it feeds people. If one accepts this truth, then one must also acknowledge the agricultural sector's right to priority in the management of the national economy, and recognize the vital role of the farmer in society. It is obvious that the rural recognize the vital role of the farmer in society. it is obvious that the rural sector needs to be able to solve its own problems at all levels, from the individual farmer, forest dweller and fisherman right up to the producers' associations, ministries of agriculture, and specialized regional and international agencies. The importance of this task should be reflected in the distribution of national resources, in farmers' incomes and in their direct participation in setting national policies.

The efforts that have been made both nationally and internationally must not be underestimated. Without them, ecological stress would undoubtedly be even more severe. Since its inception, FAO has pursued the major goals of ensuring food security and improving the living conditions of rural populations alongside those of conserving natural resources and protecting the environment. At the same time, it cannot be denied that erosion is outpacing erosion control, that the annual rate of deforestation is far in excess of the area being reforested, and that water pollution and food contamination are worsening. It as we believe, we now know what needs to be done or not done, technically speaking, why have we failed to eliminate these problems? It is primarily because we have attempted to deal with the symptoms rather than the underlying causes. The real enemies are poverty and social inequality.

Many factors outside the agricultural sector also hinder sustained development, most notably the paralysing indebtedness of many developing countries, the glaring inequity in the terms of North-South trade and the problems of access to technology.

The first goal is to achieve a broad international and national consensus on the common objectives and general principles of sustainable development polices and strategies, and in recent years FAO's Member Nations have begun this process by preparing and adopting special action programmes in a number of areas linked to sustainable agricultural development. The time has now come to integrate these initiatives through comprehensive international cooperation in support of national programmes for sustainable agriculture. FAO, anxious to contribute to this undertaking, has laid the foundation for such a programme in the form of an international Cooperative Programme Framework for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development, linking efforts outside agriculture with those in the agricultural sector itself.

Fostering the acceptance of new ideas and concrete international cooperation is an undertaking that requires great perseverance, and FAO has never failed to exhibit this mundane but effective virtue since its inception in 1945. Constrained as it often is to proceed by small steps, the fruitfulness of its action is often apparent only if viewed in the long term. The present review of FAO's involvement in sustainable development and environmental protection provides a background to, and guiding principles for, a broad-ranging programme of international cooperation towards the elimination of hunger and poverty for present and future generations.

Edouard Saouma
Director-General, FAO Rome,
May 1992

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