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close this bookFood Nutrition and Agriculture - 5/6 International Conference on Nutrition (1992)
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Address to the International Conference on nutrition 1

1 Translated from original French.

Edouard Saouma

Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

This is a great day in the history of FAO. Our Organization is indeed honoured to host the first world conference on nutrition. It represents the crowning achievement of all our past efforts and, I firmly believe, will constitute the basic premise for future commitments of crucial importance for all humanity.

We are sharing this task and privilege with WHO, and we take both pleasure and pride in the fact that the international community has entrusted to our two organizations the responsibility of organizing this meeting together. It allows us to fulfil the dream that Stanley Bruce proposed to the League of Nations in 1935: to bring about “the marriage of health and agriculture”. I am happy to welcome the presence here beside me of my colleague, Dr Nakajima, Director-General of WHO.

However, the mandate for this Conference really comes from the entire United Nations system - the UN, of course, but also the World Bank, UNICEF, UNDP and many others. Indeed, the idea for this meeting originated in an interagency committee whose members have made a valuable contribution both to the Conference preparations and to the formulation of the World Declaration on Nutrition and the Plan of Action for Nutrition, which you have before you. These texts, which we hope will be well received by you, represent the thinking of the entire United Nations family, to whom pay tribute as we begin our work.

Nonetheless, it was the Member Nations themselves who nurtured and finalized the decision to hold this meeting, am very pleased to greet and to welcome the delegations of all participating countries.

The Conference was also designed to enlist the active participation of non-governmental organizations, and I am happy to note the presence of a great many NGOs, whose contributions are bound to enrich our discussions, I extend a cordial welcome to them.

THE IMPORTANCE OF NUTRITION

For the first time, a world meeting will deal with this topic, one which has such implications for the survival of humanity that no one can remain unconcerned. We have always known that people’s health and their physical and mental development - and thus their capacity to learn, to work and to play their full role in society - are wholly dependent on nutrition. Humans most fundamental need and right is access to sufficient supplies of nutritionally adequate food. The major declarations on human rights mention this only in passing, so obvious and inalienable does it seem. But sometimes even the most obvious truths must be spelled out; and so we hail the Declaration of Barcelona, adopted in March 1992, which, in solemnly reaffirming the right of all humans to their fair share of food, defined the nature and scope of this right.

One of my predecessors, Mr. B.R. Sen, put this very strongly when he said that one person’s hunger is everyone's hunger. The obvious inference is that, if some are hungry, it is the duty of all to come to their aid.

FOOD AID

When we talk about aid we tend to picture humanitarian aid - shipments of medicine, medical personnel and medical equipment but also, and perhaps above all, food aid. There was a time when it was imagined that food aid was only for developing countries, or nearly always so. But food aid has always been vital even in the most advanced countries - ”food stamps” in one, soup-kitchens in another. Such programmes still bring essential relief in many countries to tens of millions who live below the poverty line.

An explosion of need

Today, however, we are sadly witnessing a veritable explosion of need, which has given the problem a universal dimension. Natural disasters, civil wars and the collapse of economic and political systems have conspired to condemn entire populations to famine, and have driven millions of refugees to exodus. These flare-ups are now almost too many to count.

In Africa they have proliferated in Ethiopia, Somalia, the Sudan, but also in Angola, Mozambique, Liberia and many other countries. The tragedies of Asia have spread to the former Soviet Republics In the Near East, tensions and clashes condemn hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to homelessness, poverty and hunger. And though we may hear a little less about Latin America these days, malnutrition continues to take a terrible toll there as well Even Europe is seeing pockets of famine reappear, while from what was formerly Yugoslavia come unbearable images of a barbarism that we believed forever banished starving and mutilated children and the emaciated bodies of prisoners who have become walking spectres.

The duty to intervene

These are situations that make profound claims upon our individual and collective sense of responsibility. We are duty-bound to intervene, or else stand guilty of refusing to aid people and populations in danger.

The perils of food aid

Like all other human, and hence imperfect, enterprises, food aid is not without its perils. There is the risk of political or other forms of discrimination, the risk of a negative impact on local production, the complete disruption of dietary habits, and the creation of a state of dependence that tends to perpetuate itself. We must be aware of and try to avoid all these dangers, but this in no way detracts from the value of or need for food aid.

NUTRITION AND POVERTY

While the moral obligation to provide such aid is dictated by a spirit of solidarity, it is always situations of people or populations living in poverty that make it a necessity As early as 1943, the founders of FAO stated that “the principal cause of hunger and malnutrition is poverty”.

To promote good nutrition effectively, there must be a serious commitment at all levels to fight the poverty of individuals and of nations. At the national level, this means the adoption of dynamic policies concerning employment, housing, education, community facilities, health care and social services, and so forth. At the international level, poor countries must obtain remunerative prices for the goods they export in order to relieve their burden of debt and to purchase the consumer and capital goods they need. Countries with too few resources to advance rapidly enough in this direction must receive the necessary aid to enable them to do so.

THE FOOD INDUSTRY

Each partner has a unique role to play in this concerted effort. Here, I shall simply touch upon the role of the food industry. The sector is largely concentrated in the hands of powerful multinationals which handle most of the food that is consumed in countries of the North and which export to the South, along with some staple foods, certain expensive and sophisticated products. The power of the production and market penetration of these companies therefore presents risks which call for vigilant consumer protection WHO and FAO are engaged in such efforts, particularly through the preparation and publication of the set of standards and regulations called Codex Alimentarius, the aim of which is to ensure the effective protection of consumer health.

The food industry plays an essential part in feeding humanity, and a blanket condemnation of it would be both unfair and unwise. I am convinced, instead, that beneficial results can be obtained by constructive dialogue with the industry, involving the participation of consumers, doctors and nutritionists as well as representatives of governments and international organizations.

THE WORK OF FAO

With regard to FAO’s role in nutrition, it is both varied and wide-ranging. The Food Policy and Nutrition Division undertakes specific activities in a number of sectors -planning and evaluation, nutrition programmes, food quality, consumer protection - in addition to its work in the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme.

In fact, the entire range of FAO’s activities is directly or indirectly aimed at advancing nutrition. We have undertaken to measure the problem and have therefore set up a global information system to monitor closely developments in the food sector in each country. This enables us to predict the occurrence of crisis situations or deficits and to alert the international community and donors in time. Each year we publish a report on the state of food and agriculture, and every six years we carry out a world food survey.

Plant livestock, forestry and fishery production, environmental protection for future generations, improved distribution and trade, rural development in its various aspects, all our programmes converge towards a single goal to make food security a reality, both today and for the future when the world’s population will have grown by about three billion in just one single generation. For us, this goal represents a fundamental obligation which received its highest expression in the World Food Security Compact, adopted by the FAO Conference in November 1985 but still of the utmost relevance today.

CONCLUSION

This constant concern to improve world nutrition is what gives our work its unity and cohesiveness. Our activities may be vast and ambitious, but we are not the sole protagonists in this complex field, a field with many ramifications. The problem goes beyond the bounds of FAO’s mandate and, even within these bounds, our resources are far too limited to allow us to do everything. This is why we have long joined forces with other United Nations organizations, particularly with WHO, so as to achieve synergy's and combat malnutrition on the broadest possible front.

What then should we expect of this meeting, of the great cauldron of ideas, proposals and resolutions that are to be put forth by political leaders, by representatives of the non-governmental world and of the private sector? Nothing less than a change in our very perception of human relations. For let us not forget that, if good nutrition is essential for the full development of the individual, it necessarily plays a pivotal role in human relationships. It may therefore be considered one of the foundations of human society and human solidarity. And while the World Declaration on Nutrition and the Plan of Action for Nutrition are very important, we are well aware that they alone cannot guarantee the successful achievement of our goal. The great change that our Conference is called upon to produce is the transformation of hearts, minds and wills. This and this alone will give meaning and life to the texts that you will adopt.

We are not asking for the creation of a special fund or of new agencies. What we want is to awaken everywhere the sense of our individual and collective responsibility. We want the world to feel the weight of the nutritional challenge inherent in every political, economic and social decision in the fight against poverty and in the establishment of a new world economic order.

The International Conference on Nutrition offers us an extraordinary opportunity to allow all people, both today and tomorrow, the chance to realize their full human potential. Let us seize this opportunity. Each one of us is concerned; each one of us is responsible.