The fact that we have gathered here today is not, of course, enough. Neither for our nutrition nor only for the survival of humanity. It is also very important for world governments at an institutional level to realize how important this issue is. It is with great pleasure that I can announce that, after 23 years of long, hard bargaining at FAO, the United Nations organization for agriculture and food, we have adopted—unopposed, by consensus and with just two abstentions (out of 165 countries involved)—an international accord on biological diversity in agriculture: the International Treaty on Genetic Resources for Agriculture and Food.
This Treaty contains three fundamental points. The first of these is conservation for future generations—not as a possibility but as a legal obligation. This is only right and fair. In fact, to waste diversity or allow it to be lost would be to steal something from our children.
The second point is the sustainable use of biological diversity. I don’t know whether you are aware of the fact, but in the history of humankind almost ten thousand different species have been used for nourishment. Today no more than 150 are cultivated. Of these only twelve provide for more than 80% of human nourishment and just four —rice, corn, potatoes and wheat—supply over 60% of our food. We are clearly failing to use our resources properly. Hence the second point in the International Treaty envisages a wiser, broader use of these genetic resources, both nationally and internationally.
The third and final point is the fair distribution of benefits from these resources, including the monetary benefits of commercialization. What does this mean? It means that once the treaty enters into force—and I hope that will happen soon—those people who receive economic benefits from the use of these resources, which belong to poor, humble peasant farmers, must pay a percentage of their commercial benefits for a multilateral system to fund projects, programs and activities. And they must do so in developing countries to help traditional farmers, the people who are taking care of our future through biological diversity. Article 9 of the Treaty is entitled ‘The Farmers’ Right’: it refers to the rights of the local communities, the indigenous communities and the farmers who are the true curators of this agricultural biological diversity.
I believe that the messages I am conveying to you—why agricultural diversity is important, why these people have need to be rewarded and encouraged—is very clear. I have to say, in a broader sense, that we are all flying together in a spaceship whose name is Planet Earth. If it crashes it doesn’t matter if it makes a hole in Madagascar, or in the United States or in Italy. It’s the whole spaceship that’s going to crash. The interdependence of countries and generations is enormous. The problems of the south of the world are also our problems— and of our chidren.
Today eight million people are starving. Fifteen million people die of hunger every year, twenty five thousand every day. That’s more than in any war. All this has to shake our consciences and cause us concern. But at least for one resources—agro-biodiversity—the approval of the treaty is an important step forward. This treaty is a treaty for justice and against hunger.
Let me end with a statement that I’ve always liked. Many of you may have heard it already; I heard it for the first time in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
The biological diversity of the world doesn’t belong to us; we’ve borrowed it from our children’.
José Esquinas Alcazar is secretary general of the FAO Genetic Resources Commission. The article is a transcription of the introductory speech he made at the Slow Food Award 2002 Ceremony at the Teatro Carignano, Turin, on October 23 last.
Adapted by John Irving