Brazil's Graziano elected chief of UN food agency

June 26, 2011 - 10:00 AM
Italy UN Food Agency Chief

Candidate for the post of Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General, Jose Graziano da Silva, of Brazil, delivers his speech during a session of the 37th FAO Conference in Rome, Saturday, June 25, 2011. Representatives at the Food and Agriculture Organization vote this weekend to give the largest U.N. agency its first new chief in almost two decades _ an election that comes at a time of critically high food prices and malnutrition across the world. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)

ROME (AP) — Jose Graziano da Silva of Brazil was elected on Sunday as director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. agency tasked with reducing world hunger at a time of high food prices.

Graziano, currently FAO's regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, won on the second ballot with the support of 92 of the 180 FAO member states voting.

He beat out Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain, his main challenger, and four other candidates to replace Jacques Diouf of Senegal, whose 18-year tenure prompted a change in the agency's rules to set term limits.

He takes over the agency at a time when high food prices are putting the lives of millions of already hungry and malnourished people at further risk and raising fears of a repeat of the high-price-driven social unrest of 2007-2008.

The FAO's food price index hit an all-time high in February. It has since decreased slightly, but experts warn that food prices remain far too high for many poor communities. The agency put the number of hungry people in 2010 at 925 million, the overwhelming majority living in developing countries.

The Rome-based FAO is the largest U.N. agency, with an annual budget of about $1 billion. It has faced long-standing calls from top donors like the United States for bureaucratic reform, budget cuts and better prioritizing of projects.

In his final campaign pitch to delegates on Saturday, Graziano noted that no Brazilian heads a top-level position in the U.N. system and that no Latin American had ever headed the FAO. He said he had the credentials, citing his tenure as FAO's regional representative for Latin America since 2006.

Prior to that, he served as food security minister under former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In that capacity, he helped implement the "Zero Hunger" initiative that helped dramatically decrease malnutrition among Brazil's 190 million people.

In his speech Saturday, Graziano promised to deliver FAO's reform plans and said Africa should remain a priority for the agency, with FAO playing a central role in water and marine resources management.

But Graziano's emphasis was mostly on the need for a shared vision and bridging gaps between different positions to enhance the organization's decision-making — saying the consensus surrounding his candidacy shows he's the right man to bridge those gaps.

True to this notion, he ended his pitch quoting John Lennon: "A dream you dream alone is only a dream; a dream you dream together is reality."