Science, policy and capacity key to future of agriculture, FAO Director-General says

The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), QU Dongyu, issued an impassioned plea today for the primacy of science in guiding responses to global challenges. He was (virtually) addressing the annual conference of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture (FFA), a prestigious European conference on the future of agriculture, food and the environment.

Hunger is on the rise, Director-General Qu said in his keynote address, and has been for the last six years. Even before COVID-19 struck, there were nearly 690 million undernourished people; the pandemic likely added a further 132 million to the ranks of the hungry in 2020, he stated, citing FAO’s 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report.

“More than three billion people cannot afford even the cheapest healthy diet,” Qu noted. Far too many children remain stunted. “Food is a basic human right that transcends politics.” Food touches the core of our identity, the Director-General said. “No food, no human beings.”

An optimist, despite it all

Yet even as he detailed sobering figures, Qu declared himself an optimist. Between his keynote address and answers to questions from the moderator, BBC journalist Stephen Sackur, he offered a roadmap – science, enabling policies, and investment, as Sackur asked him to sum up China’s experience in eliminating hunger.

The son of a farmer and “one of the most vulnerable” 50 years ago, Qu said he had witnessed how  agriculture could be transformed, and poverty ended. It was down to science and innovation,  alongside enabling policies and capacity building. Innovation meant technological leaps in crop productivity and yields, he explained – and should continue to do so, with digital agriculture, precision agriculture, innovations in agro-ecology, 5G and Artificial Intelligence (AI) all opening up a wealth of prospects. In his native China, Qu said, there was now near-universal access to marketing information. E-commerce was making inroads: there was broadband in every village. But innovation goes further than that, he insisted: “We have to change policies, mindsets, behaviours and business models.”

Changing the fundamentals: The Four Betters

In emphasizing innovation in the fundamentals of food and agriculture, Qu echoed the opening remarks of the Forum’s Chairman, the former European Commissioner and Slovene government minister Janez Potočnik. As it seeks to decarbonize, Potočnik argued, the world must “de-couple economic growth from natural resource use and environmental impacts”.

If things go on as now, the FFA chair warned, global material demand will double by 2060. Systemic dematerialization measures were needed, he said – for example, more efficient use of biomass to increase the availability and take-up of plant-based protein. Serving societal functions should be the goal, Potočnik suggested; global “integrated well-being” must be the measure of progress, not the growth in material output per se.

The Director-General evinced a similar sensibility as he outlined his universally applicable approach of the “Four Betters” – Better Production, Better Nutrition, a Better Environment and a Better Life. The Four Betters will support the transformation to more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable agri-food systems – connecting the pursuit of an end to hunger and malnutrition with the preservation of the environment and biodiversity. And, crucially, leaving no one behind. “We must be dreamers and doers at the same time,” Qu pleaded.

All in it together

Where to start? moderator Stephen Sackur asked Qu, as he questioned the multiple nature of priorities for systemic change. “Rich nations, start by eliminating food waste,” the Director-General replied. That would demand no investment – but rather, a decisive shift in consumption patterns. Poorer nations, for their part, should avoid the mistake of their richer counterparts and opt for less intensive energy use to develop their economies, he said.

Collectively, Qu agreed, we must tackle the contribution of agri-food systems to greenhouse gas emissions, which FAO estimates at over a third of the total. Yet while some agricultural sectors were indeed heavy emitters, he noted, others, such as forestry, were the opposite. “Break down each crop, each commodity, and make it carbon-neutral,” Qu urged, once more advocating a targeted scientific approach.

Still: was there the level of international cooperation required? Sackur asked, as he pointed to competition for vaccines amid the current pandemic. Was there the common will?

“In my time at FAO,” Qu replied, “I have had nothing but support from the EU, an FAO member for 30 years; from the G20; the G7; from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – and, indeed, from the Holy Father.”

He offered FAO’s Hand-in-Hand initiative, which he launched immediately after assuming office, as an example of how countries rich and poor could be brought together. We had to start with the most vulnerable, Qu said, with the Initiative targeting 50 or so nations. Among them, many small island or landlocked developing countries, match-making with donors – including middle-income countries such as China, Thailand or Turkey – who could share expertise and experience.

“Passion breeds solidarity,” the FAO Director-General concluded, as the moderator welcomed his “compelling, upbeat intervention”. 

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