The new Brazilian head of FAO

When José Graziano da Silva became the Director General of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in January of 2012, he was the first Brazilian elected to assume a senior international leadership position in years. And with his appointment, the world discovered the value of an expert who has fought food insecurity throughout his whole career.

His resume, though powerful, only hints at the experience he brought to the FAO: An agriculture engineering degree from the School Luiz de Queiroz of the University of São Paulo, a PhD in economics from the University of Campinas, a degree in sociology, and 25 books to his name on food security, rural development and family farming.

But in Brazil, Graziano is synonymous with the “Fome Zero”, or Zero Hunger, program. The program came from President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s vision that every Brazilian has access to three meals a day.  Lula himself had experienced the pain of food insecurity as a child in his native rural Brazilian Northeast. President Lula was determined to ensure that every. Indeed, the food problem Graziano faced was not just hunger. A 2003 Brazilian Census Bureau survey showed that Brazil’s bigger food problem is obesity, especially among the poor.

By the time Lula left office in December 2010, the program Graziano led reduced undernourishment in Brazil by 25% and, along with economic stability and the rise of the minimum wage, helped lift 24 million people out of poverty. As Minister of Food Security and Fight against Hunger, Graziano ensured that civil society played a key role in that campaign; planning policy, allocating resources and monitoring implementation, including gender balance.

All of that certainly helped Graziano amass the 92 votes that ensured his election to lead FAO and earned him the support of OXFAM and other non-governmental organizations. But Graziano’s candidacy was actually built on his work after 2006 as FAO’s Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Assistant to the Director-General he will replace in January.

As Director-General, Graziano faces the challenge of working with a limited budget of US$ 1 billion, that rich nations have resisted increasing in recent years for fear of strengthening an organization whose agenda they do not particularly support.  With a staff of 3,600, which includes 1,600 professionals, FAO’s 2012 budget was supplemented by voluntary contributions estimated at US$ 1.4 billion.

As a Brazilian, Graziano will find himself occasionally in the awkward position of addressing challenges to his country’s policies as a world agricultural powerhouse whose interests in global trade are not dissimilar to the United States and the European Union and conflict at times with those of poorer nations, including major emerging ones, like India.  Some of those challenges involve difficult issues of land use and encroachment on the Amazon, which has important implications for carbon emissions derived from deforestation and for climate change. A recent FAO report pointed to a break in Brazil’s sugarcane production since 2008 as the culprit for the rising of world sugar prices.

A cautious and cordial man, Graziano said he will be director for all 193 FAO member countries. He also lowered expectation on achieving the Rome-based organization main objective any time soon.  As he said in his first interview, referring to the 1 billion people that according to FAO’s estimates, do not get enough food to be healthy or lead an active life, “It will not be possible to eradicate hunger by 2015 [...] not even to reduce it by half,”

By Paulo Sotero
Brazil Institute