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The biological diversity of our planet, the foundations of agriculture and food production, once seemed inexhaustible. Now a different picture is emerging of a finite, yet renewable, resource. Wisely managed, it can support the world's peoples into the foreseeable future. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of human civilization could depend on our ability to defend and make sustainable use of biological diversity.
Humanity's place in nature is still not widely understood. Human influences on the environment are all pervasive: even those ecosystems that appear most “natural” have been altered directly or indirectly during the course of time. Starting some 12 000 years ago, our forebears, as farmers, fishermen, hunters and foresters, have created a rich diversity of productive ecosystems. This heritage which spans the generations is threatened by the recent rapid pace of change, undesirable side-effects of industrialization and continuing expansion of the world's population.
FAO is pressing for the highest priority to be given to saving biodiversity, not as a museum piece but as a source of continuing development. It has long pioneered the conservation of plant and animal genetic resources. More recently, FAO has reformulated its programmes to place a central emphasis on the sustainability of agricultural and rural development.
But who will finance the multifarious tasks of conservation? How can this funding be sustained? Much of the burden will inevitably fall on the principal economic beneficiaries of biodiversity. The international community has still to agree, however, on how to draw equitably on the wealth generated by biodiversity or how to distribute the funds fairly for the conservation and sustainable development of natural resources.
A serious weakness of the international economic system has been its inability to assign a value of exchange to biodiversity and other environmental components. Finding out how to incorporate the cost of conservation into that of production is a challenge we must meet in order to fulfill our obligations to future generations and halt the continuing impoverishment and misuse of biodiversity.
By selecting the theme “Harvesting nature's diversity” for World Food Day, we hope to draw attention to such issues and mobilize action to halt the continuing loss of biodiversity. The message is clear: the cost of conserving biodiversity is far less than the penalty of allowing its degradation. Once lost, this heritage cannot be recovered or restored. It is a challenge for each and every one of us.
Edouard Saouma, Director-General,
Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations

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