United Nations Agency chiefs and top international personalities have met to celebrate World Food Day, whose focus this year is on the recent wave of food price swings which threatens to push millions more people into hunger.
‘Food prices - from crisis to stability,’ was chosen as the World Food Day theme for 2011 following five consecutive years of unstable and often rising food prices, which currently stand close to record levels.
Commemorating FAO's founding in 1945, World Food Day is celebrated in at least 150 countries across the globe. This year it also marked the 60th anniversary of the Organisation's move from its first seat in Washington to Rome, Italy.
In a message to the World Food Day ceremony at FAO headquarters, Pope Benedict XVI said that fighting famine and hunger required both immediate and long-term solutions.
In a clear reference to the crisis in the Horn of Africa, with famine declared in southern Somalia, the Pope said: "In the face of the death of entire communities due to hunger and the forced abandonment of people's lands of origin, immediate assistance is essential, but it is necessary also to intervene in the medium and long-terms so that international activity is not only responding to emergencies.
He described as "lamentable" the idea gaining ground that food was just merchandise and thus "subject to speculative movements".
Agriculture promoted economic growth, he declared: “Agricultural work should not be considered as a secondary activity, but rather as an object of all strategies for growth and integral development.”
“Liberation from the yoke of hunger is the first concrete manifestation of the right to life,” he added.
Inaugurating the ceremony, FAO Director-General, Jacques Diouf, said that more than $80 billion of additional investment was required annually in agriculture and related activities to ensure food supplies for the world in 2050. Greater investment is the key to mitigating food price fluctuations and building poor people and nations' resilience, he said.
He added: “The background to the devastating impact of soaring and volatile food prices on the livelihoods of the poor is 20 years of under-investment in agriculture and neglect of the sector.”
The crisis in the Horn of Africa shows that both short and long-term responses are needed and that predictable financial resources are required to tackle the root causes of famine and food insecurity, Diouf noted.
“The world has the knowledge and financial means needed to ensure food security for all, and thus a more stable world. Now is the time to make it happen,” he concluded.
Former President of the Republic of Chile and current UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, said in a keynote speech that a significant cause of food insecurity was "the poverty and discrimination faced by women and girls, including women farmers".
“Since women are on the frontlines of food security, we need to put their needs and rights at the forefront of trade and agricultural policies and investments to move from crisis to stability,” she declared.
“If the world is to meet the challenge of feeding people today and 9 billion people by 2050, we must invest in girls and women, who are key to food security... Empowering women and girls is key to progress in development, food security and improved nutrition,” she added.
In a message read to the ceremony, President of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea and current Chair of the African Union, Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, said that Africa and sub-Saharan Africa in particular is bearing the brunt of the food price crisis.
He identified the priorities for Africa as “improving productivity and competitiveness of small farmers, investment in agriculture and policies related to land tenure”. He called for a spirit of national and international solidarity to reduce the number of people suffering hunger round the world.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that ridding the world of hunger required a different form of globalisation, one reflecting the concepts of "sharing, generosity and cooperation". "A hungry man is never a free man," he declared. "And often he is also a dangerous man".
Italian Agriculture Minister, Francesco Saverio Romano, said that the world's rich, industrialised countries had the responsibility of restoring agriculture and food security to the centre of the international political agenda.
“Globalisation must go hand in hand with rural development directed, in all parts of the world, to the well-being of populations,” he added.
Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) also stressed the fundamental role of women:
“Women are the secret weapon against hunger. They are a powerful force in the fight against malnutrition,” she said. “When women have food, children eat. When they are helped to grow food, communities eat. So, an important key to fighting hunger is to provide women with knowledge and skills, capital and tools, to help achieve food security for themselves, their family, and their community.”
President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Kanayo F. Nwanze, told the invited audience: “As long as there is even one person dying of hunger we must do everything within our power to prevent it. The latest crisis in the Horn of Africa shows the terrible human cost of neglect, both of agriculture and rural areas. Droughts are not preventable but famines are.
“There are effective strategies and tools that farmers can use to increase their resilience to climatic and other shocks. Long-term investment in agriculture - not only from international donors but from the countries themselves - is the key to ensuring that such tragedies do not happen again.”
Guests of honour at the ceremony included Gianni Alemanno, Mayor of Rome and Archbishop Luigi Travaglino, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to FAO, who read out the Pope's message.