Guest Article

Hand in hand to transform agri-food systems in Europe, Central Asia and beyond: FAO

FAO to discuss transition to a sustainable, nutritious food system / Pic: GettyImages-Chris2766
FAO to discuss transition to a sustainable, nutritious food system / Pic: GettyImages-Chris2766

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From 2 to 4 November, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is convening its 32nd Session of the Regional Conference for Europe, virtually hosted by the Government of Uzbekistan, where FAO Members will have the opportunity to deepen their discussion on how to transform agri-food systems to make them more resilient, sustainable and inclusive – regionally and globally. Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, shares his thoughts ahead of the event.

The FAO Regional Conference for Europe is open to all FAO Members in the Europe and Central Asia region. Extending from Lisbon to Vladivostok and from the Arctic Circle to the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, the region is vast and diverse, and its food systems vary significantly.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the sustainability of agri-food systems was already a growing concern in the region, particularly due to the increasing rates of obesity (about 23% of the adult population in Europe and 18% in Central Asia) and associated non-communicable diseases, as well as the rise of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in some countries.

In light of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit 2021 the Conference will focus on Sustainable Food Systems and Healthy Diets in Europe and Central Asia​ as one of the main topics. The debate will aim at outlining the status of nutrition and sustainable food systems, identifying interlinkages as well as related challenges and opportunities in the region.

The pandemic’s impacts have put more pressure on this overall nutritional situation. There is no lack of food available, but economic downturns and job losses have generated more and more constraints for people to access nutritious food and healthy diets.

Regional food supply chains have been functioning well, mainly due to the commitment of farmers, who have made a tremendous effort to keep producing and harvesting food, despite the pandemic and related containment measures. In Europe and Central Asia, many smallholders and family farmers have reported using personal savings to pay for operational costs, at the expense of their households’ living conditions. And 85 percent of them have emphasized that their survival hinges on continued government assistance in covering ongoing expenses.

In this context, appropriate policies and public–private partnerships to address the needs of food producers and to improve the sustainability of agri-food systems are needed. Related issues, such as food safety, biodiversity conservation and digital innovation will be high on the agenda of the Regional Conference.

Digital technologies such as satellite imaging, remote sensors and mobile and blockchain applications promise revolutionary changes for smallholder farmers and consumers. They can help optimize food chains, increase access to markets, reduce food loss and waste, improve water management and fight pests and diseases, just to name a few benefits.

But Europe and Central Asia should not limit their discussions to the regional perspective. The region has a wealth of knowledge and experience that is invaluable to promote sustainable development worldwide, and the financial support of European countries has long been fundamental to fight hunger and poverty in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Before COVID-19, almost 690 million people were undernourished in 2019 globally. FAO’s most recent assessment suggests that the pandemic may add up to 132 million people to the ranks of undernourished in the world. Furthermore, around 4.5 billion people depend on agri-food systems for their livelihoods and to feed themselves and their families. 

The pandemic has strengthened the importance of leaving no one behind – the guiding principle of the 2030 Agenda. More than ever, governments, international organizations, the private sector, civil society, academia and other relevant partners must work closely together to face and overcome the challenges ahead.

Strong partnerships are at the center of FAO’s initiatives to promote sustainable agri-food systems and ultimately end hunger and poverty. With a New Strategy for Private Sector Engagement, FAO aims to partner with the private sector to support and scale up innovation, promote investments, mobilize scientific expertise, generate data for SDG monitoring, based on shared resources, networks, knowledge and technologies.

FAO also works closely with Parliamentarians around the world, as strategic partners to improve legal frameworks, adopt suitable policies and to advocate for allocation of resources for implementation of these policies across food and agricultural sectors.

Before the pandemic, FAO had launched the Hand-in-Hand Initiative​, which aims to matchmake donor and recipient countries to accelerate innovation, investment, institutional change, agricultural transformation and sustainable rural development based on data and information. The Initiative counts on state-of-the-art technologies, such as the Hand-in-Hand Geospatial Platform​, which delivers key information for decision-making, and the Data Lab​ for Statistical Innovation, which combines unconventional data sources, big data, artificial intelligence, and data science for decision-making and impact evaluation. Already 29 countries are participating in the initiative and just as many expressing interest to join in the coming months.

In reaction to the pandemic, FAO developed the comprehensive and holistic COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme​ for impact at global, regional and country level. It is designed to mitigate the immediate socio-economic impacts, while strengthening the long-term resilience of food systems and livelihoods – in line with the UN approach to “build to transform” and in close collaboration with various partners. Transformational change is needed in the way we manage our biodiversity, produce and consume our foods and interact with nature, if we want to build back better after the COVID-19 pandemic and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

On the 5th​ of November, FAO will officially launch the Food Coalition, a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral mechanism to mobilize the resources, expertise and innovation that will support the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Program and the Hand-in-Hand initiative. By promoting dialogue and the exchange of knowledge and expertise among countries and working towards solution-oriented plans of action, the Food Coalition will expand our shared partnership and advocacy. I am pleased to see that some 40 countries have already expressed interest in being active partners in the Food Coalition, which was first conceptualized by Italy and other key partners.

Throughout 2020, FAO has advocated for keeping food value chains alive, emphasizing that only when countries collaborate and trade freely can this crisis be overcome. Many countries in this region clearly are making an effort to enhance their agri-food trade policy environments, and we encourage them to continue on this path.

The 75th anniversary of FAO, which we just commemorated a few days ago, is a historic milestone that reinforces our commitment to ensuring access to nutritious food for everyone and eliminating hunger once and for all.

The 32nd Session of FAO’s Regional Conference for Europe is a significant occasion to ensure that this commitment is translated into action.

New ideas, strong partnerships and new ways of working towards our common goals of better production, better nutrition, better environment and a better life.

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