As FAO turns 75, its mission to end hunger and nourish the world is as relevant today as ever

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As FAO turns 75, its mission to end hunger and nourish the world is as relevant today as ever

16 October 2020, Rome - Today, World Food Day marks the 75th anniversary of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Born on the wake of catastrophe - World War II, three-quarters of a century later, FAO's mission to end hunger and nourish the world has been made more relevant because of another global scourge - the COVID-19 pandemic, said QU Dongyu, FAO Director-General.

Along the way, the world, and with it FAO, went from growing more food, to getting attuned to its environmental footprints, setting up regulatory frameworks in response, getting animal diseases under control, and, finally, seeing the fight against hunger as inseparable from other development goals. 

Hence, also, this year's World Food Day's theme: grow, nourish, and sustain. Together. 

"The present moment is again fraught with danger, complicated, and demands urgent action. As hunger grows once more, as the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the fragility of our food systems, history is calling upon us once more to rise to the challenge," urged Qu.

The Director-General spoke today at FAO's global 75th Anniversary/World Food Day virtual event in Rome, which brought together Pope Francis; Italy's President; Lesotho's King and Spain's Queen - FAO Special Goodwill Ambassadors for Nutrition; UN's Secretary General; and the heads of IFAD and WFP.

Saluting FAO's anniversary, Pope Francis described the organization's mission as "beautiful and important".

Time to build back better

World Food Day is marked this year as global hunger rises for the fifth consecutive year and a healthy diet is out of reach for 3 billion people. Nearly 700 million people still go hungry, and the pandemic could tip up to 132 million more into hunger by the end of 2020.

This year's World Food Day aims to galvanize and accelerate action towards ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, and to make food and agriculture an essential part of the COVID-19 response.

Chief amongst them, as speakers at today's event noted, are global solidarity and building more resilient, robust agri-food systems that can withstand shocks, deliver affordable and sustainable healthy diets for all, and decent livelihoods for all workers along the food supply chain.  

"Now is the time to rethink our approaches and redouble our efforts," said Qu.

Amongst these, Qu highlighted pioneering sciences and technologies, stressing that "Innovation is our ally in re-imagining our food systems and ending hunger, as we are morally and politically bound to do in the next ten years".

Pope Francis urged for more support for FAO's and all UN food agencies' initiatives that promote sustainable and diversified agriculture, and support small farming communities and the rural development of the poorest countries.

Using the money that buys arms and covers military expenses for defeating hunger and rural development instead would also be a "courageous decision", said the Pope.

"Hunger is not merely a disaster for humanity but also a disgrace... We cannot fail to respond or to act. We all are responsible," said Pope Francis.

His words were echoed by UN's Secretary-General António Guterres who called for intensified efforts to achieve the vision of Sustainable Development Goals - "a future where everyone everywhere has access to the nutrition they need". To inspire action towards this vision, Guterres said, he will convene a Food Systems Summit next year.

Noting that his country was proud to host FAO's headquarters, Italy's President Sergio Mattarella said he welcomed FAO's and its Director-General's "commitment to work with Italy and many other countries in forging a "food coalition" aimed at containing the effects of COVID-19 on food systems".

This is the moment of "crucial choices", and of "a serious global commitment," concluded Mattarella who expressed hope for the international community to rediscover a "profound meaning of the valuable goods the earth offers us" and the "responsibility to share and safeguard them for future generations".

Healthy diets for all

FAO Goodwill Ambassadors for Nutrition, King Letsie III of Lesotho and Queen Letizia of Spain stressed that healthy diets were everyone's right.

King Letsie III underlined that most of the people who cannot afford a healthy diet live in Africa and Asia, and called for "concerted efforts to bring down the cost of nutritious foods" so more people can afford them.

"The nutritional status of the most vulnerable populations groups is likely to deteriorate further as a result of the destructive health and social economic impact of COVID-19," warned King Letsie III.

Highlighting that hundreds of millions go hungry whilst many more suffer from obesity, Queen Letizia said: "These imbalances should make us think about how to strengthen food systems, seeking shorter marketing pathways to encourage local, seasonal, sustainable and small-scale production, a strategy that would also make life easier for many women in regions of the world where their vulnerability is extreme."

The president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development's (IFAD) Gilbert F. Houngbo said:

"We know that when crisis strikes, it is the poor and the vulnerable who suffer the most. We just cannot help but be aware of this reality and focus our attention on these most marginalized people, particularly in rural settings. At a time like this, these rural people need our support even more. But we also need them. If we want strong, healthy and peaceful societies, first we need to produce enough nutritious food for everyone."

Ending wars and responding to climate extremes critical

The World Food Programme (WFP) was last week awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Peace, which many speakers today lauded as a recognition of hunger as a threat to peace and the need for the international community to turn its attention to addressing food insecurity. 

David Beasley, Executive Director of WFP said: "2021 is looking very bleak. But I believe that if we reached deep into the hearts and pockets of the people around the world, we can perform another miracle."

"But as long as we have man-made conflicts, we will never end hunger," warned Beasley. "It is critical that we end the wars, it is critical that we respond to climate extremes...If we strengthen the fragile governments out there, do the things we know that we have the expertise to do, I believe that we will be celebrating World Food Day in a way we have never done before because hunger will be at the end."

World Food Day events around the world

Earlier today, the FAO Director-General participated in an online World Food Day event in Brussels hosted by the European Parliamentary Alliance against Hunger and Malnutrition, whose continued efforts to put food and nutrition high on the political agenda, he commended. 

Qu was joined, amongst others, by the Vice-President of the European Parliament, Heidi Hautala, and the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski. 

Hautala called for globalized and systematic solutions, innovation and equity as part of efforts to build back better and end hunger. Wojciechowski spoke about EU's Green Deal and noted the Commission's COVID-19 response work with FAO on food security and rural development. 

Achieving Zero Hunger possible

This renewed sense of commitment and call to action today is all the more important as a joint study of FAO and partners revealed this week that we could end hunger by 2030 if donors double their investments and spend the money wisely.

"The scourge of hunger has been tormenting humankind for millennia. But we are the generation that can end it, once and for all," said FAO Director-General.

Honouring food heroes

This year's World Food Day also honours all food heroes, who - despite all difficulties - continue to provide food to their communities and beyond.

Today, FAO and its partners are urging everyone to show gratitude for the food we eat and the people who produce, plant, harvest, fish or transport it.

Events in over 150 countries, including at Rome's Colosseum that is serving as a stunning backdrop for an FAO video mapping show this evening, mark World Food Day and celebrate the world's food heroes and FAO's anniversary.