Speech on World Food Day
UN FAO, Rome,16th October 2023
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour to be here today at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations to mark World Food Day.
The founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation 78 years ago in October 1945 had the objective of eliminating hunger and improving nutrition and standards of living. The FAO is the oldest permanent specialised agency, a bastion of the multilateralism that the United Nations constitutes.
The theme given to this year’s meeting – “Water is life. Water is food” – is apposite indeed. Water is crucial to life on Earth. Our beginnings were sea beginnings.
Water comprises more than 50 percent of our bodies and it covers over 70 percent of our planet’s surface. Yet, only 2.5 percent of water is fresh, suitable for drinking or agriculture. Water is crucial for human life, for biodiversity, economies and the very foundation of our food-production methods. Indeed, agriculture accounts for almost three-quarters of global freshwater withdrawals. However, like all natural resources, fresh water is not infinite.
Trends including rapid population growth, ongoing urbanisation, economic development, and climate change are putting the planet’s water resources under increasing stress. Freshwater resources on a per-capita basis have declined by 20 percent in the past decades, and water availability and quality are rapidly deteriorating due to decades of abuse, poor use and management, over-extraction of groundwater, pollution and climate change. We are at a perilous tipping point in relation to this precious resource.
Today, 2.4 billion people live in water-stressed countries. Many of those affected are smallholder farmers, particularly women, who struggle to meet their daily needs, as well as Indigenous Peoples, migrants, and refugees. Competition for this priceless but depleting resource is increasing, and a water scarcity has now become an ever-increasing cause of conflict.
Around 600 million people depend on aquatic food systems for a living. They, as we meet, are suffering the effects of pollution, ecosystem degradation, unsustainable practices and climate change.
Together, we must take action to preserve our planet’s water resource before it is too late. We need to produce food for humans and animals and biofuels with less water, while ensuring that water is distributed equally and that our aquatic food systems are safeguarded.
We must tackle the scourge of global hunger and food insecurity, transform agri-food systems so that they can be made fit for purpose in our contemporary circumstances of interacting crises and be a central part of the global climate solution.
The 2023 Global Report on Food Crisis issued by the World Food Programme reported that 258 million people in 58 countries were suffering food insecurity, up from 193 million in 2021. We must move past reactive emergency responses to tackle the underlying structural causes of hunger.
A sustainable transformation in agri-food systems can significantly accelerate climate action and the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, our blueprint to a sustainable, flourishing future on our vulnerable planet, on which progress to date has been dismal. To deliver successful food systems, we must recognise the links between food insecurity, global poverty, debt and climate change.
We must too face up to some sobering facts such as that of 1.6 billion tonnes of primary food production being wasted annually in so-called developed countries, while obesity levels continue to rise.
We have to tackle food speculation in crops, especially in wheat production, as well as the stockpiling of wheat reserves among a mere handful of nations.
We require a new departure with regard to food production models, one that is informed by local realities and can be helped, I suggest, by a new anthropological scholarship. This offers the security that a dependency on the international food value chain can never offer.
We now need best ecological practices in agriculture, including agroecology, to become widespread, a shift away from the productionist agronomy model, a colonially imposed food system, which has exacerbated food insecurity by creating over-dependence on a small number of staples and over-reliance on imported fertiliser, pesticide and seeds.
We must acquire a space for the discourse needed to achieve the necessary transformation in policy and practice, one that is informed by scientific discoveries that benefit all, without borders.
Today is a day to renew our commitment to the conservation of our water resource, to the achieving of universal food security, a world free from hunger, a just, sustainable and harmonious existence on our vulnerable planet that is in peril.