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Food diversity expresses cultural heritage and is key for healthy diets

26 November 2018, at 12:00am

Tackling hunger and malnutrition requires investing in local agricultural production to bring greater diversity to people's diets, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said over the weekend.

"The more we concentrate on fresh local foods for our diets, the more we will build a generation free from obesity and overweight," Mr Graziano da Silva said, underscoring that while hunger still needs to be eradicated, other forms of malnutrition linked to inadequate diets are on the rise.

The FAO Director-General made the remarks in his acceptance speech for the Artusi Prize 2018, awarded to him by the Town of Forlimpopoli for contributions made in the fight against hunger. The prize acknowledges achievements in social and cultural solidarity and is named after the Italian town's most famous citizen, Pellegrino Artusi, author of "La Scienza in Cucina e L'Arte di Mangiar Bene" (The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well).

Eating healthy means safeguarding food diversity at the local level

"The food we eat is not only a quantity of proteins or vitamins, but it is a diversity of foods that forms the basis of our different civilizations," Mr Graziano da Silva said.

He warned however, that this diversity is at risk. Currently 80 per cent of our diet is based on a few commodities - like wheat, rice, maize, and soybeans - while throughout our history humans have used over 7,000 products, "which are at the basis of our different diets and cultures."

"Investing in local products and bringing this diversity back into our diets is one of the most important challenges that we have today," Mr Graziano da Silva said. This means implementing a territorial approach to food systems that strengthens links between small urban centres and their surrounding rural areas, he added.

Food and culture, as an inspiration for a life's work

Mr Graziano da Silva recalled his family history - his great-grandfather was a peasant in the small town of Pianopoli, in Calabria, Italy who left for São Paulo, Brazil, in 1857 after an earthquake - and how from his great-grandmother, he learned "the passion for food as culture."

"She taught me how to grow vegetables, how to prepare typical desserts and make limoncello, in the way it was done in her homeland. Food and agriculture are values shared throughout this marvelous nation (Italy). They were also the cornerstone of my academic formation, as I made my post-secondary studies in agronomic sciences," the FAO Director-General said.

"With this personal and then professional background, I sharpened my senses and my instincts to understand that food and agriculture are the two key elements for human existence."

The Brazilian experience and hunger eradication

Mr Graziano da Silva also referred to his role, as part of the Brazilian government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in tackling poverty and hunger through the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) Programme, which he stressed remains a "global reference point".

With Fome Zero and subsequent social policies, such as Bolsa Familia, Brazil managed to reduce the hunger of 11 per cent of its total population in the early 2000s to less than 2.5 percent by 2010.

"This drastic reduction in the number of undernourished people in a short time was possible due to strong political commitment by the government and the implementation of public policies aimed at combating extreme poverty and at consolidating a food security programme," Mr Graziano da Silva said.

"At FAO, we are proud to have been associated with this programme since its inception and to replicate its success outside Brazil," Mr Graziano da Silva said.

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