Delivering a better world through agri-food reform

AO will be taking the lead to implement follow-up actions after next week’s UN Food Systems Summit

  
Image used for illustrative purpose.

Image used for illustrative purpose.

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The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has entered a new era with a new structure and new dynamics. The 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals are approaching; we have to change our agri-food systems urgently and holistically. This transformation requires a systemic approach and collective action by producers, distributors and consumers, together with governments, the private sector, academia and civil society.

That is what next week’s UN Food Systems Summit is about and what FAO wants to achieve, together with all our partners, through the new FAO Strategic Framework 2022-2031. The action of each and every one of us has an impact on the future of our planet through our agri-food systems.

The summit is timely. After decades of decline, the number of hungry people has been growing for the past five years, now amounting to as many as 811 million people. At the same time, obesity and other non-communicable diseases are ever-growing global problems associated with insufficiently diversified healthy diets and consumption patterns. Many of the current agri-food practices are also exacting a heavy toll on our planet. Our agri-food systems are not functioning properly. What do we need to do to transform them? How does every individual impact on the process?

As the leading international organization in this field, FAO has been advocating for and supporting agri-food systems transformation. The “agri-food system” covers the journey of food from tillage to table — from when it is planted, grown, harvested, processed, packaged, transported, distributed, traded, bought, prepared, eaten and disposed of. It encompasses non-food products such as forestry, animal rearing, use of feedstock, biomass to produce biofuels and fibers, and it constitutes all of the activities, investments and choices made, and it impacts on the livelihoods of all the people that play a part in getting us these agri-food products.

With expertise ranging from policy and feasibility, science innovation, land and water, livestock and fisheries to biodiversity and climate, food safety and normative work, geospatial data and digital technology, FAO has been at the forefront supporting the preparation for this important global summit. More importantly, and in line with its mandate, FAO will be taking the lead to implement follow-up actions after the summit.

In July, the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit was held at FAO headquarters in Rome and was extraordinarily successful. Together with FAO’s chief economist and chief scientist, I have been sitting on the summit advisory bodies, scientific groups and action tracks. We have been working closely with expert colleagues both inside and outside the UN system. With a presence in more than 130 countries, our teams on the ground have been supporting national dialogues that contribute to the summit outcomes and national priorities, ensuring they are targeted and solution-oriented.

Transforming our global agri-food systems rests ultimately with actions at the country and local levels. Culture is an important aspect. One needs only to look at cuisines to see how diverse agri-food systems are across and within countries. More than half of us — about 4.5 billion people — earn our livelihoods directly through the agri-food production chain, supply chain and value chain. And we are all consumers of foods, and game-changers.

What does it take to transform? We at FAO have identified four cross-cutting/cross-sectional accelerators: Technology, innovation, data and “complements” (governance, human capital and institutions). FAO has been organizing and preparing itself to lead the process for the past two years. Our new strategic framework, endorsed by members, is focused on supporting the achievement of the SDGs through the transformation to more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable agri-food systems for the “four betters” — better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life.

We have reformed our organizational structure and made it more modular and agile in order to make ourselves fit for purpose. For example, the newly created position of chief scientist, along with an Office of Innovation and the Office of SDGs, are concrete steps to strengthen the role of science and innovation to complement the socioeconomic work led by the chief economist to underpin the transformation, as well as to track the achievement of the SDGs. Innovation is not just about technology. It is also about approaches and policies. It is about mindset.

Countries, communities and industries will determine their transformational pathways. Our goal is pragmatic: Build up ownership of members and support members by walking the talk and achieving concrete results on the ground.

FAO has the expertise and networks, and a vast array of tools to assist. Our Hand-in-Hand Initiative has established the open-access geospatial platforms that can calculate forest cover, carbon sequestration potential and water evaporation rates. Our early-warning network systems can alert of coming droughts or crop pests. Our applications calculate fodder supply and demand conditions in drought or conflict-prone areas. Furthermore, our analytical work, including our new modeling work, recently assessed the impacts and tradeoffs of proposed actions and systems that often have detrimental social, economic and environmental effects, as well as determining how to better harness fiscal support for agri-food systems.

FAO is well placed and ready to take full responsibility after the summit outcomes are decided and move forward to catalyze impacts together with all stakeholders and friends.

Agri-food systems are complex and diverse. We all agree that they are not realizing their full potential if we run business as usual. We need to craft solutions to achieve the “four betters” and leave no one behind. FAO and our partners have the capacity to lead this process for a better world.

  • Qu Dongyu is director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
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