FAO collects, analyzes and disseminates information, provides policy and planning advice to governments, offers direct development assistance, and acts as an international forum for debate on food and agriculture issues.
Despite considerable progress in recent decades, the world still falls short of the goal of adequate food and nutrition for all. FAO estimates that more than 790 million people in the developing world are chronically undernourished, consuming too little food to meet even minimal energy and protein needs. Millions suffer from lack of essential micronutrients; their symptoms include blindness, vulnerability to infectious diseases, anemia, and mental retardation. Those most at risk include the poor, the elderly, refugees and displaced persons, drought-prone populations, and children. According to data gathered between 1987 and 1998, two out of five children in the developing world are stunted, one in three is underweight, and one in 10 is wasted. FAO advocates equitable, participatory rural development as the key to eradication of poverty, the first and foremost cause of undernutrition and food insecurity.
Widespread hunger and malnutrition are not simply problems of inadequate food production; they are the most critical and cruel elements of poverty. Farmers in the developing world are discouraged from increasing food production by the lack of purchasing power among rural and urban populations as much as by a lack of technical assistance or inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizers. People go hungry because they do not have the money to buy food, rather than because local farmers cannot produce more. The fight against world hunger is a major part of the battle against world poverty. Building up a country's agriculture provides both food for the hungry and jobs for the rural populace; it contributes to the overall prosperity of the nation.
The goal of eradicating hunger and malnutrition and ensuring food security for all is central to FAO's mandate. Following the serious depletion of world grain reserves caused by poor harvests in 1972, FAO saw the need to develop an international system to maintain minimum world food security and offset the effects of crop failures. The organization made a proposal under which all countries, be they developed or developing, would cooperate in building up national food reserves under a structure of international cooperation. Special efforts were called for to increase the self-reliance of developing countries. The proposal was endorsed by the World Food Conference held in Rome in November 1974, and FAO was requested to prepare an International Undertaking on World Food Security. In 1976, the organization established the Food Security Assistance Scheme to carry out the work of the International Undertaking.
In 1983, FAO's Committee on World Food Security adopted a broader concept of world food security, with the ultimate objective of ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the food they need, and in 1986, the FAO Council endorsed a World Food Security Compact, which provides a clearly defined moral basis for action by governments, organizations, and individuals directed toward securing food supplies for all. The compact urged developing countries to promote domestic food production as the first line of defense and to reexamine, and if necessary revise, national policies to ensure adequate incentives to farmers, particularly small-scale producers. It recommended that governments of developing countries prepare to maintain food security in times of shortage by such measures as early-warning systems and emergency food reserves and to promote rural development that helps increase the purchasing power of the poor. Developed countries, both importers and exporters, were asked to consider world as well as national interests when setting policies concerning food production, stocks, imports, and prices. They were encouraged to continue providing emergency food aid to less fortunate countries, as well as to assist in increasing agricultural production in those countries, and to help low-income countries to secure imports of food, fertilizers, and other agricultural inputs in times of difficulty. They were also requested to take into account, in negotiations on trade questions, the fact that the food security of many developing countries depends on their ability to export agricultural and other products in order to meet the cost of food imports.
The World Food Security Compact called on nongovernmental organizations to help stimulate public interest in food-security issues, thereby facilitating additional action by governments, and it called for a commitment to food security on the part of individuals throughout the world. The individual was called upon not only to work for his own food security and that of his family but also to recognize that he has "a sacred obligation" to concern himself with the food security of those less fortunate than himself. "Failure to provide succor when it is needed," the compact stated, "is a betrayal of man's duty to his fellow men."
In 1992, the International Conference on Nutrition (ICN) was convened at FAO headquarters in Rome. Organized jointly by FAO and WHO, the conference brought together almost 1,400 delegates from 159 countries and the European Economic Community (EEC) to address ways of channeling greater resources to the eradication of hunger and malnutrition worldwide. The ICN addressed eight important nutritional issues: preventing micronutrient deficiencies; preventing and managing infectious diseases; improving household food security; promoting healthy diets and lifestyles; enhancing the capacity for care; improving food quality and safety; assessing, analyzing, and monitoring nutrition situations; and incorporating nutrition objectives in development policies. Attention was drawn to the fact that, though enough food is produced yearly to provide an adequate diet for all, the distribution of these resources is very uneven.
FAO's activities are increasingly focused on food security as a question of household access to food as much as of overall food availability. In this context, proper identification of vulnerable groups is fundamental. FAO is developing, at national and sub-regional levels, an Aggregate Household Food Security Index. The conceptual basis for the index was approved by the FAO Council in 1993. Once fully developed, it will serve as a tool to help monitor food security trends worldwide. In November 1996, the FAO hosted 194 heads of state or government at a World Food Summit to discuss and combat world hunger. Leaders pledged to reduce the number of hungry people to 400 million by 2015. That pledge was reaffirmed at the June 2002 "World Food Summit: Five Years Later." But according to the State of Food Insecurity in the World 1999, the rate of progress (a reduction of 8 million undernourished people a year) means there is no hope of meeting the goal. Further, there is not uniform progress throughout the world: In the first half of the 1990s, only 37 countries achieved a reduction in the number of undernourished, totaling 100 million people; while across the rest of the developing world, the number of hungry people actually increased by almost 60 million.
Among its information functions, FAO provides technical information for specialists through an active publishing program in the form of statistical yearbooks, periodicals, technical reports, scientific monographs, training materials, and other studies of agriculture worldwide (see Bibliography). Most of these publications are translated from their original language into at least one of the organization's other official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, and Spanish.
FAO's David Lubin Memorial Library serves as a coordinating center for the Worldwide Network of Agricultural Libraries (AGLINET). It houses over 1 million items covering agriculture, statistics, economics, food and nutrition, forestry, fisheries, and rural development. The library's computerized facilities supply on-demand bibliographies to field projects, individuals, and institutions in FAO's member nations.
FAO's filmstrips and its radio, television, and video programs cover a wide range of topics from improved farming techniques to animal husbandry, aquaculture, and soil conservation. Translation of these materials into local languages is encouraged in order to reach small farmers and extension workers unable to use one of the five official languages. In addition, the organization provides users with access to over 40 databases on agriculture, fisheries, and forestry, as well as satellite-based information on climate that is crucial to monitoring and responding in a timely fashion to signs of drought, crop failure, and insect plagues.
Every decade, FAO sponsors a worldwide agricultural census, continuing and expanding the first world census carried out by the International Institute of Agriculture in 1930.
FAO has made considerable efforts to identify future demands on agriculture and how these demands might be met, based on the results of data collection and analysis, policy reviews, and practical knowledge of agricultural development. In 1969, FAO published a provisional World Plan for Agricultural Development, an attempt to analyze the major issues that would confront world agriculture in the 1970s and early 1980s. Building on this base, FAO submitted to the FAO Conference in 1979 a study entitled Agriculture: Toward 2000. The study's main purpose was to provide a framework for the analysis of options and consideration of policy issues relevant to the development of world agriculture until the end of the century. The study was global in scope, but the major emphasis was on developing countries. Approximately 90 developing countries, which, excluding China, together accounted for over 98% of the population of the developing countries, were studied individually.
In 1993, the FAO Conference launched Agriculture: Towards 2010 , the revised and updated version of a study originally published by FAO in 1987. Designed to address how the future may unfold, rather than how it ought to develop, the document analyzes trends in food security, nutrition, and agricultural development to determine the most likely outcomes by the year 2010. Among the success stories, it foresees that world agricultural growth, although lower than in the past, will continue to outpace population increases. Also, the majority of people in the developing countries are expected to experience improvement in their per capita food availability and nutritional situation. At the policy level, the study notes a growing awareness of—and greater capabilities to respond to—the need to increase agricultural sustainability. Trade agreements are also seen as becoming more liberal and less trade-distorting, even though the progress may not be smooth.
Yet despite these favorable predictions, many problems are foreseen as remaining, especially for the less developed nations. Significant chronic undernutrition will continue to prevail in many countries and will likely affect significant proportions of the population in entire regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. According to the study, if present trends continue, sub-Saharan Africa will replace South Asia as the global area with the highest number of chronically undernourished people—close to 300 million by the year 2010. Though improvements will be made in South Asia, that region will still have 200 million undernourished.
The pressures on agriculture, on forest and fisheries resources, and on the environment will continue to build. Coupled with this, there will be few prospects for expansion of the main agricultural exports of the developing countries. The study presents detailed assessments of land resources potential for future crop production in the developing countries. These assessments are accompanied and sustained by maps illustrating the dominant land classes for each major geographical area. Aside from providing projections, the study proposes to assist planning at the national and international level, making recommendations designed to aid people and governments in taking early action to reverse negative trends. While doing so, it calls for continued vigilance and preparedness to deal with newly emerging problems.
To help in assessing potential food availability, FAO and UNESCO published in 1978 the Soil Map of the World. By combining the data in the Soil Map with inputs on climate and population, institutes undertaking global studies on climate change, agricultural production, and soil degradation can make efficient projections. In 1992, FAO completed a digitized version of the Soil Map in a form that allows it to be used as an input into climate change models. The data was also updated and the symbols were modified to make it accessible to nonspecialists. The Soil Map is part of FAO's Geographic Information System (GIS), which also provides data on vegetation cover and other aspects of land use.
The locust and grasshopper menace that periodically threatens Africa has given urgency to FAO's efforts to improve its Rome-based Global Information and Early Warning System for Food and Agriculture. The system, established in 1975 to monitor the world's food supply, sounds the alarm when food security is threatened. FAO prepares monthly, quarterly, and annual reports that provide comprehensive, up-to-date analyses of the world food situation and identify countries threatened by shortages. The reports also serve as a guide to potential donors and help avoid food crises.
FAO's Remote Sensing Center collects and interprets data and helps establish data-receiving stations, particularly in Africa; these stations can interpret information on precipitation, soil moisture, and biomass in order to forecast harvests and can transmit the information to national early-warning systems. ARTEMIS, FAO's Africa Real Time Environmental Monitoring Information System, uses high frequency environmental satellite data to produce, at regular intervals, images indicating the rainfall situation and the development of vegetation at continental scales. In combination with data from other sources, ARTEMIS enables specialists to make assessments of crop growing conditions, detect droughts at an early stage, and locate potential breeding grounds for desert locusts. ARTEMIS is an important tool for the GIEWS.
Research and Technical Information. FAO has stressed the importance of agricultural research in developing countries, where the shortage of trained personnel for research remains a major problem. Its Research and Technology Development Division, established in 1984, helps developing countries make the best use of their research resources and assists in the transfer of the fruits of research and technology to developing countries.
The Information System for the Agricultural Sciences and Technology (AGRIS) and the Current Agricultural Research Information System (CARIS) are two worldwide networks coordinated by FAO in support of research and development programs in food and agriculture. In 2002, 199 national, international and intergovernmental centers participated in and submitted approximately 14,000 items a month to AGRIS. In 2002, 156 national, international and intergovernmental centers participated in CARIS, centers which submitted a great deal of information on 30,000 active projects.
FAO operates the world's most comprehensive bank of agricultural information and statistics. Originally called AGROSTAT, FAOSTAT brings together FAO's major data files, including data compiled since 1961 on annual supplies and utilization of crops, livestock, and fishery and forest products, as well as on producer prices, population, and other topics. Other important statistical information maintained by FAO's technical divisions include the Fisheries Statistical Database (FISHDAB), the Globefish Data-bank and Electronic Library, the Forest Resources Information System (FORIS), and the Geographic Information System (GIS).
To meet increasing demand for agricultural data, FAO has prepared the World Agricultural Information Center (WAICENT). WAICENT gives governments, institutions, universities, and individuals easy, economical access to information from over 40 FAO databases. Users can access the composite database employing a variety of methods including diskette, CD-ROM, computer networks, and telephone lines.
One of FAO's important mandates is to provide member nations with advice on agricultural and food topics. This involves a very broad range of technical, policy, and planning support, principally aimed at building awareness towards key issues, generating appropriate action, and helping countries to develop their own capacities. The recent restructuring of FAO's Policy Formulation, Investment Centre, and Field Operations divisions into a Technical Cooperation Department is intended to provide a consolidated base at headquarters for the provision of direct assistance to member nations in policy, investment, and implementation of field operations.
FAO's Food Security Assistance Scheme (FSAS) helps member countries formulate comprehensive food security program. A fundamental aspect of the FSAS methodology is the use of national multidisciplinary teams of experts in program planning and implementation. This approach contributes to accurate diagnosis of problems, realistic formulation of solutions, capacity building at the national level and anchoring of programs within the national institutional framework.
FAO's Investment Center helps developing countries construct sound development programs and projects for funding by multi-lateral organizations, linking the interests of governments and donors to forge viable partnerships. During project identification, the center carefully assesses the development priority of investment proposals, working closely with local staff to promote self-sufficiency and to complement national expertise. This is followed by detailed project preparation for consideration by financing institutions.
The prime source of funding for FAO-assisted investment projects is the World Bank, particularly the IDA, but the Investment Center also cooperates with most of the principal multilateral financing institutions, including the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and regional development banks. Rural poverty alleviation is especially important in projects formulated in conjunction with IFAD.
FAO assists governments in using pesticides safely and rationally through the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides. The code includes a clause for Prior Informed Consent (PIC), which establishes a mechanism for information exchange, enabling importing countries to decide whether they want to receive pesticides that have been banned or severely restricted because of threats to human health or the environment.
The Codex Alimentarius (a joint commission of FAO and WHO) is an international code of food standards. It is designed to guide the world's food industry and to protect the health of consumers by establishing definitions and requirements for foods, assisting in their harmonization, and, in doing so, facilitating international trade.
The Codex Alimentarius also responds to changes or trends in food production. For example, in 1999 it set up the Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology, which met for the first time in March 2000 to "develop standards, guidelines, or other principles, where appropriate" for these products. The task force, whose members include government representatives from Codex Alimentarius member countries, scientists, consumer and industry organizations and international non-governmental organizations, was given a four-year mandate by FAO and WHO. FAO is involved in a continuous process of consultation with its member governments, providing information, advice, and technical assistance that can help them make the best choices in promoting sustainable rural development.
To promote sustainable agriculture and contribute to development that will provide long-term solutions to the fundamental problems of poverty and hunger, FAO gives practical help to developing countries through a wide range of technical assistance projects. The organization encourages an integrated approach, with environmental, social, and economic considerations included in the formulation of development projects. By encouraging people's participation, FAO aims to draw on local expertise and ensure a cooperative approach to development.
FAO's Office for Special Relief Operations (OSRO) began operations in 1973 in response to the disastrous drought in 1972–73 in the semiarid countries on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. In 1975, following an improvement in the Sahel situation, FAO's work was extended to cover emergencies elsewhere. The emphasis in these operations is on speedy approval and delivery of assistance. When disaster strikes a country, the FAO representative assesses needs in close collaboration with local authorities and with other UN agencies. At the request of the government, emergency missions are organized by FAO to assess in detail the damages and losses and to prepare assistance projects for consideration by multilateral and bilateral agencies. Most emergency projects are funded by governments, nongovernmental organizations, and UN agencies. In many cases, FAO, through its Technical Cooperation Program, offers an immediate source of funding for special relief operations. Supplies and equipment provided include seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock supplies and equipment, as well as logistical support. Disaster-prone countries may also receive preventive assistance to cope with calamities.
Through its Agricultural Rehabilitation Program for Africa, conceived in 1984 at the height of the Ethiopian famine, FAO helped channel some US$ 194 million into 25 countries to supply farmers with seeds and fertilizers, repair irrigation systems, and rebuild cattle herds.
Since the early 1950s, FAO has coordinated the campaign against the destructive desert locust, which intermittently swarms in the Middle East, Africa, and other regions. Campaigns were almost continuous until 1963, when the pest was brought under control. There have, however, been serious outbreaks of swarms since then, particularly between 1967 and 1970, and in 1978 in desert areas in India.
In 1986, FAO led the battle against the grasshopper and locust plagues that threatened to devastate crops in all parts of Africa. The Emergency Center for Locust Operations (ECLO), established at FAO headquarters, directed what was to become a US$ 50 million continent-wide campaign that helped save more than 90% of crops in the Sahel alone. FAO monitored breeding areas with satellite imagery, implemented projects carrying out spraying missions, sent pest-control experts to advise African authorities, and helped set up coordinating committees of government and donor representatives in the most directly threatened countries. More than 40 donors, including both developed and developing countries, UN agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, contributed to the fight in 13 countries. The center was deactivated in the spring of 1989 when locusts were brought under control in some 40 countries in Africa, the Near East, and Southwest Asia. In late 1992, with the reappearance of the desert locust on the coastal plains around the Red Sea, the ECLO was immediately brought back into full operation.
FAO continues to strengthen its ability to prevent and respond to emergencies caused by pests and diseases, placing special emphasis on locusts and rinderpest.