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World Food Day

Saturday (Oct. 16) is World Food Day, an annual event marking the anniversary of the founding in 1945 of the FAO, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. This year, World Food Day organizers are focusing on the importance of biodiversity.

"The world's biodiversity is under threat and this could severely compromise global food security," asserts Jacques Diouf of Senegal, the director-general of the FAO. The organization estimates that, over the past century, three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have been lost.

"As a consequence," continued Mr. Diouf, "the food supply becomes more vulnerable, there are less opportunities for growth and innovation in agriculture and less capacity for agriculture to adapt to environmental changes, such as global warming, or to the appearance of new pests and diseases."

With that warning, the FAO notes that 90 percent of the world's animal food supply comes from just 14 species of mammals and birds. And half of our plant energy intake comes from just four crops - wheat, potatoes, corn (maize) and rice.

On this World Food Day, the FAO stresses the need to protect a wide array of life forms with unique traits, such as plants that survive drought or livestock that reproduce in harsh conditions. Sustainable agricultural practices, says the U.N. agency, can both feed people and protect the ecosystems that harbor biological diversity.

Researcher and consultant Rachel Waterhouse says farmers who abandon the diversity of traditional crops lose an important element of food security. "The traditional ones are the ones that, under conditions of frequent drought, of occasional floods, of the local conditions that people have without access to fertilizers and so on, that they can rely on as a security that - one way or another - they're going to manage to grow some crops," she said. "The other question is diversity. Local farmers grow a wide range of crops so that can ensure that if one does badly the other one is going to do well."

On this World Food Day, the Food and Agriculture Organization stresses the responsibility of farmers, since 40 percent of the land's surface is used for agriculture. Farmers are part of the ecosystem where they farm, and they can help maintain those ecosystems, says the FAO, by applying less pesticide, rotating crops and using other methods that protect or enhance biodiversity.