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Hunger is not everything
Thursday, 30 June 2011 20:19

In an article first published by, Secretary General of AVSI Alberto Piatti outlines challenges facing the new head of the FAO.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a new director: after 18 years of Jacques Diouf’s leadership, Brazilian José Graziano da Silva will take over responsibility. He was elected by a tight margin over Spanish candidate Miguel Ángel Moratinos Cuyaubé during the FAO’s 37th Biennial Conference on June 26, 2011.

His election occurs in a moment of radical changes, and so we send our best wishes to José Graziano da Silva that he can meet the tremendous challenges of the moment. The first of these challenges is the rise in food prices, which is setting off waves of impact especially in developing countries where up to tripled prices weigh heavily on family budgets of which at least 75% is dedicated to costs for food. We cannot forget the riots caused by the soaring costs of bread in 2008, which were paralleled by threats of riot as recent as 2010 in Northern Africa and by many other examples throughout history.

The explosion of food costs is like a two-sided coin. The first side shows the features of the financial crises linked with the paper economy that, despite everything, is left unchecked. This side is ominous because determined by unpredictable, fickle and uncontrollable factors. These determine volatile prices which promise high returns, but often fail to deliver and cause fatal collapses.

The other side of the coin features hope: never before did even small producers, for example from Kenya, have as good a chance to turn a profit on their work. Still, this would remain illusory if there were not interventions to build networks and to provide necessary resources, quality seeds and technical assistance. Small, disconnected producers with unpredictable and low-quality production could not take advantage of such an opportunity.

Without attention to the small farmers, opportunities would be open only to the largest producers with more advanced technology and financing. Enabling smaller producers is a daunting—but possible—task, and is the only real alternative to desperate urban and international migration. An alternative is needed not so much because of the social imbalances generated by the trend of migration, but because this trend causes the violent impoverishment or elimination of the culture led by the “rural family,” precisely the protagonist Pope Benedict XVI considers as the keeper of invaluable wisdom.

A second challenge for our times is to rediscover what Benedict XVI calls the “covenant between human beings and nature, without which the entire human family is destined to disappear.” In a culture in which this relationship is in crisis, we need to reestablish an intelligent, constructive and productive interaction between humans and nature. We need to look at our ancestors who also worked the land to gain “food security,” but who started from the desire for beauty and truth, relying on their certainty in the harmony of the natural world, which was not considered as something to possess but as something given by God.

“Nature is at our disposal not as ‘a heap of scattered refuse’ (Heraclitus of Ephesus), but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order ‘to till it and keep it’ (Gen 2:15). But it should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism — human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense. This having been said, it is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a “grammar” which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation. Today much harm is done to development precisely as a result of these distorted notions.” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48)

Rooted in this culture of the covenant between humans and nature is what we consider the third challenge for the new director general of FAO: energy. Almost two billion people still lack access to a stable energy source, and so are excluded from the development process. To include them, however, would upset the global energy balance. A large percentage of these populations are in fact already affected by the frenetic pace of modern life, and therefore tend to improvise methods of accessing energy that are equally inefficient, disrespectful of nature and harmful for the planet; for example, deforestation to produce charcoal and illicit access that undermines the established grids, especially in large cities. It is another daunting question, but humankind is not missing the conditions to face it directly and intelligently: both by encouraging the research and use of alternative energy sources, and also by recovering a more appropriate lifestyle and a greater concern for future generations.

The last challenge is at the level of culture: to have the courage to admit that food security is an illusion; it is a guarantee that no nation in history has ever been able to have or give, because food and power production are the fruits of free labor and not of the mechanisms that guarantee them. Production is the result of a certainty about life and its meaning. Food security and safety—ensuring access to food which is adequate in both quantity and quality—cannot exist without the certainty that reality is given to us, albeit in a way we do not control, but in a way that is characterized by the love of a God who became man.It is this conviction that drives the farmer to plant trees that will bear fruit in the long term, maybe after his lifetime. Only this certainty opens him to see the impact that his work has on a reality that can be shaped but not dominated by him, and to extend his gaze beyond his own generation, full of hope for the future of the human family. Perhaps it is precisely this that we wish the new director of FAO: a certainty in the harmony of creation, in the creative freedom of the human person, and in the rich tradition that has emerged where these two realities meet.