FAO Liaison Office in New York

Interview with FAO Deputy Director-General Semedo


For today's interview, we speak to Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General.

The United Nations Secretary-General has acknowledged that COVID-19 could lead to a “global food emergency”, while the President of the General Assembly has referred to a “looming food crisis”. How is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the Uinted Nations (FAO) working to counter the pandemic’s impact on food security and nutrition?

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis which is affecting the food and agriculture sector. Prompt measures to ensure that food supply chains are kept alive, domestically and internationally, to mitigate the risk of large shocks that would have a considerable impact on everybody, especially on the poor and the most vulnerable.

The UN Secretary General recently launched a special policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on food security where he highlighted three main messages: we must mobilize to save lives and livelihoods, focusing attention where the risk is most acute; we must strengthen social protection systems for nutrition; and, we must invest in the future. The bottom line is that we need to work together to support a transition to more sustainable food systems that are in better balance with nature and that support healthy diets.

While the pandemic is a global health crisis, we must not allow it to become a food crisis. In this context, FAO is playing a role in assessing and responding to its potential impacts on people’s life and livelihoods, global food trade, markets, food supply chains. We have implemented an array of tools to support policy analyses and monitor the impact of COVID-19 on food and agriculture, value chains, food prices, food security across the globe. We believe this will allow countries to anticipate and mitigate possible disruptions the pandemic may trigger for people’s food security and livelihoods, avoiding panic-driven reactions that can aggravate disruptions and deteriorate the food and nutrition security of the most vulnerable.

To mitigate the pandemic’s impacts on food and agriculture, FAO urges countries to meet the immediate food needs of their vulnerable populations, boost their social protection programmes, keep global food trade going while also promoting regional and local trade, keep the domestic supply chain gears moving, and support smallholder farmers’ ability to increase food production. Although disruptions in the food supply chain are minimal so far, challenges have been already experienced in terms of logistics. Food needs to move across borders with no restrictions and in compliance with existing food safety standards.

FAO is working closely with a host of partners, harnessing broad networks to drive further research, support ongoing investigations and share critical knowledge.

The interconnectivity of humans, animals and the environment is relevant in fighting any threat to food systems, agricultural production and livelihoods. This focus is particularly important in rural farming communities where animals provide transport, fuel and clothing as well as food. Embracing this challenge, FAO works with many partners, including the World Health Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health, to deploy a One Health approach locally and globally, with a special focus on bolstering capacities where needed and protecting the most vulnerable communities. One Health recognizes the connection between humans, animals, plants, and their shared environments in an integrated effort to reduce disease and pest threats and ensure safe food supply. It is well known that diseases circulate in animals and the environment, some of which can spill over and affect human health. FAO works continually to support countries to prevent, detect and control diseases and related health threats wherever they emerge. This includes monitoring the emergence of antimicrobial resistance as well as active programmes to combat and eradicate animal diseases such as peste des petits ruminants and African swine fever, as well as diseases that pass from animals to humans including avian influenza and rabies.


Initiatives like the European Green Deal and the upcoming Summit on Biodiversity highlight that 2020 is a super year for nature. Can you elaborate on the ways FAO leverages biodiversity management to build back better for food and agriculture?

Yes, indeed 2020 was pegged “the Year for Nature”. While headliner events planned around this theme have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we also saw that, more than ever, we need to take decisive action to be more in harmony with nature. We need to re-connect agriculture with ecosystem services and unleash biodiversity’s full potential to enhance our food and agriculture production. This means harvesting, leveraging and scaling-up potential solutions from nature that can significantly shift towards healthy and sustainable food systems and build back better after the COVID-19 pandemic.

To this end, FAO has been actively engaging with its Members and partners through a series of strategic meetings and dialogues – from marking International Day of Biodiversity with United Nations Environment Programme to launch the latest State of World Forests report to celebrating World Environment Day with a focus on biodiversity to collaborating with the European Union to discuss the European Green Deal and its Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies. In each instance our message has been clear: biodiversity plays a critical role in building sustainable food systems.

But to prevent the biodiversity loss undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems and posing a serious threat to global food security, we need strong collaborative efforts between environment and agriculture sectors. In this context, FAO is committed to supporting Members promote in key programmes and practices, including:

  • As demand increases for food, animal feed and fibre for paper, energy, clothing, and other uses, the health and productivity of existing arable land is declining, worsened by climate change. RECSOIL: Recarbonization of global soils, an initiative of FAO and the Global Soil Partnership, supports farmers, to incentivize sustainable soil management and enhance soil organic carbon stocks. The recarbonization of soils can be a climate solution as healthy soils are essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience to climate change by maintaining or increasing their carbon content.
  • FAO is also preparing a specific programme on drylands and water scarcity to prevent soil erosion and promote sustainable soil and rangeland management as well as crop diversification.
  • Last December, FAO adopted a Strategy on Mainstreaming Biodiversity across the Agricultural Sectors which looks to to re-connect agriculture with ecosystem processes and services, linking consumers and urban societies with food producers.
  • An International Code of Conduct for the Sustainable Use and Management of Fertilizers, recently developed by FAO, will assist countries in paving the way towards Land Degradation Neutrality and soil protection, providing a locally adaptable framework and a voluntary set of practices.
  • The FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, now in its 25th year, sets out principles promoting the long-term conservation and sustainable use of fisheries and aquaculture resources.

These examples highlighting FAO’s work is also complimented by the Organization’s engagement in global processes, such as co-leading the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration where we can ensure that biodiversity is the bedrock of actions and contributing to the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

But all this need to be accompanied by real political will. Some critical moments to do so will be next month’s High Level Political Forum, the UN Biodiversity Summit and the next CBD COP. If we want to change things, we have to improve cross-sectoral collaboration, we have to fully involve all stakeholders concerned, especially the stewards of our biodiversity. We also have to be willing to recognize that tough decisions will have to be taken sometimes. It is not always “win-win” - there are trade-offs that we must address them. Everyone needs to step up to the plate.


As the Chair of the FAO Women’s Committee, you have launched the weekly VirtualiTea gathering, which has brought hundreds of colleagues together and has featured some very prominent figures as guest speakers. What was the motive behind this initiative and to what do you attribute its resounding success?

At the beginning of the lockdown in Italy, when staff in FAO headquarters had to suddenly adapt to teleworking, I knew that we were facing a very challenging time with having to change how we each deal with our day-to-day lives. Each of us – women and men - with different situations and different contexts, some with families, others alone, some single parents of school-age children, others with elderly relatives. As a woman, mother, sister, daughter, professional, colleague, and in my role as the Chair of the Organization’s Women’s Committee launched last year by the Director-General, I thought of how we can best engage together in recognizing colleagues’ specific needs and concerns in such times. In thinking of how to connect, and looking to reflect the philosophy of the Women’s Committee, I found the answer in new technology through virtual meetings.

With the energy, creativity and diversity of the Women’s Committee, comprised of female colleagues from FAO headquarters and decentralized offices, we decided to test out the idea of hosting regular virtual teas – so VirtualiTea was born! And the response was extremely enthusiastic from the get-go. To be honest, I didn’t know it would be so popular. These sessions definitely touched a nerve and responded to a core need: connecting with colleagues, sharing stories and experiences, learning from each other in a very informal, friendly, respectful conversation, all in a safe and inclusive space.

We tried to keep the structure simple and relevant. Each VirtualiTea would focus on a selected theme with guest speakers, moderated by members of the Committee, and finish lightly with a moment of entertainment. Looking to feature a wide variety of pertinent topics, we kicked off with a session devoted to coping under COVID-19 with the FAO councilor, featured an Italian astronaut, a Michelin-star cook, discussed challenges of being women diplomats, career development, women and science, among others. We were honoured to host the formidable Machel Graça and our Director-General, despite an incredibly busy schedule, also participated in two sessions.

It’s been an incredibly rich and rewarding experience for me. It has made me understand more than ever that such a connection is vital – it is what makes us. With an average of 300 or so participants joining from the world over each week, the VirtualiTeas brought together so many colleagues – women and men - allowed us to make new friends and rediscover old acquaintances. We’ve received an outpouring of positive responses and inspiring ideas. In fact, we’ve even seen spin offs in our regional offices in Latin America and the Middle East!  I can already and enthusiastically confirm that, even as the lockdown slowly lifts and we return to our offices, the VirtualiTeas will continue!