Director-General  QU Dongyu
A statement by FAO Director-General QU Dongyu

Virtual WTO Agriculture Symposium: Agricultural Trade in Food System Transformation

2 December 2020

Opening Session Speech by Dr QU Dongyu, FAO Director-General

Topic: “Food Systems of the Future”

As delivered


Thank you, Madame Moderator,

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear colleagues and friends,

1. My dear Brother Alan Wolff. I listened to your speech very carefully. It is a very substantial, comprehensive, and holistic speech. I learn a lot from it. 

2. It is a timely symposium to build up more solidarity, more consensus, between agriculture and trade. 

3. Food is essential. No matter you are poor or rich, young or senior, men or women, you need food to survive. Food is the basic human right for all of us. 

4. I am pleased to be part of this symposium and to address you on this very important topic. I promised to Alan Wolff that I would attend this event. I have a very tight schedule today, starting one hour ago in a briefing to the European Parliament. Then, I will have another five agendas. I believe that agriculture and trade should be closely linked. We cannot just produce the food. 

5. At the very early stage of this pandemic, I devoted all my efforts to call for maintaining trade functional for food. It was not easy in the first week of March. Many countries were not so willing to follow. I kept saying that we should keep the international trade open and functional. I had a private conversation with the Secretary-General, suggesting him to communicate with the world leaders to make agricultural production and trade in operation. At that time, it was a spring season and time to produce more and keep trade running. At that time, nobody predicted that the situation would be so serious. 

6. I am from China. I know crisis is not only a crisis. It is indeed a danger, but it is also an opportunity for us to make necessary changes if we deal with the crisis properly.

7. Today, you organize this symposium, which is very important. We cannot wait for something to happen, we have to prepare in advance and prevent the danger from happening. Winter is a good timing for us to have a deep thinking, to cool down ourselves and cool down our minds. Mr. Alan Wolff, in my opinion, you are a Director-General (interim) of WTO, although nobody nominate you. You are now playing a vital role as the Director-General (interim) from my personal observation, as you are attending many important international conferences representing WTO, such as G20. These are all your contributions. History will remember and record you. We will be recorded not by individuals. That is why I am bold and brave to do something. Last year, in Berlin, we exchanged our ideas and agreed that we should do something together. Don’t complaint! Don’t regret! Try your best to do something!        

8. The future of the agri-food systems will define humanity’s future as well. Agri-food systems start from the ground, not from the factory. If it starts from the soil, it will definitely relate to the environment. If we don’t address the soil, water, pollution and rivers properly, there will be no base for agriculture and no highly qualified agricultural raw materials. How can we produce highly qualified foods? That is why agri-food systems are very important for defining the future of humanity.  

9. The 2030 Agenda calls for action to end hunger and eliminate all forms of malnutrition by ensuring that sufficient quantities of safe, nutritious, affordable and healthy foods are available to all. 

10. Sufficient quantities come first. Then, nutritious, affordable and healthy foods. We will have a big table of 10 billion people to be fed. It is the biggest table in the world! We should feed them first, then feed them well, then feed them sustainably, then feed them with food diversity. There are different levels. 

11. It also calls for this goal to be achieved, while creating economic growth and employment opportunities needed to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, sustain biodiversity and the natural resource environment, and adapt to the growing stresses of climate change.

12. Climate change causes lots of stresses. I would like to say it in a scientific way and I don’t want to create political misunderstandings and interpretations. I say biotic and abiotic stresses from climate change.  

13. We need our agri-food systems to deliver food security and better nutrition for all, to be economically sustainable, to be inclusive and to have a positive impact on climate and environment.

14. Unfortunately, we all know that our contemporary agri-food systems are NOT fulfilling this aspiration. Urgent action is therefore required by all key players and partners. 


15. Let us first acknowledge the many challenges facing agri-food systems today. 

16. Nearly 690 million people suffer from chronic hunger today, up nearly 60 million in the last five years. 

17. And a healthy diet costs far more than the international poverty threshold of USD 1.90 per day, making it unaffordable for more than 3 billion people in the world.

18. If we look at the starchy consumption for basic energy of human beings, we only have about 10 percent of the world’s population who are suffering from hunger. If we look at the high-level of nutrition, we still have 3 billion people who do not have healthy diets. FAO and WTO are working for all the global citizens. Of course, we are addressing the problems of the vulnerable group. In that sense, trade has two basic functions. First, it is to keep staple food accessible to all, especially to the vulnerable people during the pandemic period. Second, 90 percent of the world’s population depend more on trade. When I was the Vice Minister in China responsible for the international trade affairs in agriculture, we opened the market to America, Chile, Argentina and countries in Africa. We imported cherry from Chile. Cherry is not for basic requirement, but for nutritious and healthy diets. It is for 90 percent of the world people who have already overcome the hunger.       

19. The burden of malnutrition in all its forms remains a challenge. Roughly, 144 million children under the age of 5 are stunted, 47 million are wasted and 38 million are overweight. 

20. We have to address all the issues, starting from transforming the agri-food systems first. If we want to produce highly nutritious and functional foods, like food with rich fibre and high protein. They are good for your health. You cannot eat them every day like medicine. But you have to eat basic food and meals every day. We need to remember that at least 90 percent of the world’s people require nutritious foods daily. 

21. The global economic downturn caused by COVID-19 is expected to make this situation worse. It may add up to 132 million people to the ranks of the undernourished in 2020, threatening to reverse the progress achieved over the last two decades.

22. At the same time, our current agri-food systems are estimated to contribute up to 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and continue to over-use scarce natural resources. 


23. We all need to work harder to address these challenges and to move towards sustainable food systems.

24. First, we need to better understand and minimize the trade-offs that exist between competing policy objectives

25. For instance, adopting more sustainable technologies, while better for environmental sustainability, may cause comparatively higher food prices and jeopardize food security and nutrition for the poor. How can we deal with it holistically? 

26. How to share the cost? How can we use the subsidies to agriculture more wisely? The increase of subsidies to agriculture is good. It is a strong indication of civilization. More vulnerable people live in the countryside, no matter in Europe, in America, in China or in Africa. We need more subsidies to agriculture. Don’t blame the agricultural subsidies. The key question is to how use the subsidies wisely. I always encourage my colleagues from WTO to carefully look at this issue. How to use the agricultural subsidies in a way not distorting the international trade is WTO’s job. From the viewpoint of Ministers of Agriculture and FAO, we need more subsidies. There is a big inequality between rural and urban areas. My message is very clear: don’t blame the agricultural subsidies, the key issue is how to use them wisely and effectively.     

27. To address this trade-off, we need to invest in research & development and infrastructure to increase the productivity and efficiency, and to improve income distribution across and within countries to increase purchasing power. To achieve that, improved linkage between research and extension, data analysis, evidence and decision-making tools are critical.

28. Second, we need to harness the power of digital technologies to achieve transformative changes

29. For example, the integration of robotics and big data in agriculture is already playing a key role in sustainably meeting the growing demand for food in the future. Quality development and 4-R approaches should be established integration of a package of solutions on efficiency of water, land and agricultural inputs (fertilizers, chemicals and others).

30. However, most governments and food system actors have yet to harness the power of these technologies. 

31. For this, we need to partner and work closely with the private sector to promote inclusive business models that reduce the digital divide between countries and regions. 

32. Third, we must strengthen governance, human capital and institutions

33. We need to build the capacities in countries but also to strengthen our capacity for collective action to develop the agri-food systems we want.

34. Actions to address these challenges will be accelerated through the UN Food Systems Summit and through the many multi-stakeholder platforms and initiatives, which have been formed to support the development of more sustainable food systems. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

35. The 2030 deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is rapidly approaching. We need to intensify addressing the challenges facing food systems, using all the means, tools and mechanisms available to us. There is no time to waste.

36. Trade is one of these tools. It can boost farmers’ productivity and income. It increases their participation in markets and value chains and contributes to more efficient use of natural resources. Let’s build a shared economy globally. Each country or region has your own advantages of natural conditions, which are in favour of producing specific agricultural products with unique competiveness in global market.   

37. Trade not only helps to reduce seasonal scarcities of food during normal agricultural production cycles, but also provides an important mechanism to address production shortfalls or supply chain disruptions caused by adverse and unforeseeable events, such as COVID-19. 

38. On 31 March, as the pandemic was unfolding, I urgently invited the two heads of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue a joint statement calling on governments to minimise the impact of COVID-19 related border restrictions on trade in food. 

39. Trade adds to the variety of food available in markets and can contribute to lowering food prices, making it more affordable, sustainable in challenging areas, in particular for the most vulnerable populations. 

40. Finally, trade can play a crucial role in both climate change adaptation and mitigation. 

41. Trade promotes the use of natural resources based on countries’ comparative advantages, which prevents their over-exploitation. 


42. The transformation of agri-food systems is a global priority and at the core of FAO’s mandate, and trade is a key enabler for our food systems to become more sustainable, resilient and inclusive. 

43. For this, we need to promote policy coherence within and among countries, promote innovation and digital technologies, and strengthen international governance mechanisms. 

44. This 25th Anniversary is an excellent opportunity to recognize the important role played by the WTO in this regard. 

45. It is also an opportunity to reflect on necessary action to increase confidence in multilateralism. This is fundamental. Harmonizing production, trade and consumption at global, regional and national levels is urgently needed to adjust. 

46. We hope that this symposium will contribute to gain a better understanding of the vital role of markets and trade in transformation of agri-food systems, and foster fruitful dialogue and cooperation on the way forward. 

47. Trade can help strengthen mutual inter-dependence and build a shared future for all of us. Let’s make our trading systems more smoothly, more beneficial to all the Members. That is our job! Let’s work together! 

48. Thank you.