Dr Ismahane Elouafi stressed that the wide range of coverage and influence these firms have means it is crucial to get them on board in order to get important food programmes and technologies up to scale.
“MNCs in the industry, whether based in the APAC region or across the world, have a huge responsibility when it comes to improving the food sector whether it comes to technology development or sustainability issues,” Dr Elouafi told FoodNavigator-Asia in an exclusive interview after the recent Future Food Asia 2023 event in Singapore where she was also the Guest of Honour.
“There is already a realisation that the way large-scale production went on previously resulted in [issues with] greenhouse gases, and I am very glad to see that many of these big firms are now more inclined to focus on sustainability and carbon issues.
“That said, there still needs to be much more done in terms of international development, and one major area here is in terms of bringing diversity to the agrifood sector – these companies traditionally tend to work based on economies of scale and this means working with millions of hectares of land and crops so the influence is immense.
“As such, there is a crucial need for these firms to take a closer look at their business models in this area and bring more diversity into the picture – this is the main way to build resilience and increase nutrition in the food supply, which is what is really needed to create healthy diets for more consumers.
“MNCs are way too important in international markets and the agrifood sector as a whole for any improvements to be implemented at scale without them on board, so it is very necessary to get them to both believe in and drive this cause, or we will never get to the scale needed.”
In addition to big firms, Dr Elouafi also believes that governments have a very important forward-looking role to fulfil, particularly when it comes to new food technologies.
“The agri sector is very intent on reinventing in many ways to harvest the power of the overall system to sequester carbon whether it be via green methods or the ocean and more – but it is imperative that policy and regulatory systems can facilitate that,” she said.
“And in order to do this, one of the most important elements required is strong foresight on the technologies, so that they can develop the relevant regulations early on to help the industry instead of the other way around.
“This is because it can be very difficult for everyone when the technologies have already been developed and matured, and then only does the regulatory side request for backtracking or trying to control certain aspects – this is not always possible, and regulators need to be forward-looking and work with the innovators early on to avoid such situations.”
While the FAO has a strong focus on facilitating discussions that can help with the adoption of important technologies, Dr Elouafi also highlighted the two main factors most important to any communication in this field as data sharing and time sensitivity, which both tend to encounter the most challenges.
“There certainly needs to be a better way of communication between all three parties in the science-policy-society interface, and the most important factors that this tends to revolve around are data and time,” she said.
“Time is linked to the timing of discussion, where similar to what was mentioned previously if this is done too late in the game it can lead to situations where parties need to make U-turns and reversals in their progress which is far from ideal.
“Data on the other hand is an issue where this is sometimes lacking when it comes to sharing by the science experts, for whatever reason, and this tends to cause delays or issues when convincing people on the policy or society end.
“So the most important thing here is to have not just dialogue but continuous, neutral dialogue, with enough data and benefits clearly communicated to both public and private sectors so that the process is truly effective.”