Europe and Central Asia discuss solutions to promote sustainable agri-food systems

FAO’s Regional Conference for Europe kicks off hosted virtually by Uzbekistan

2 November 2020, Tashkent/Budapest/Rome - The 32nd Session of the FAO Regional Conference for Europe started today as FAO Members from Europe and Central Asia will discuss several challenges facing the region on food and agriculture, particularly how to promote sustainable agri-food systems and healthy diets as well as solutions for youth, employment and developing rural areas.

Hosted by Uzbekistan in collaboration with FAO, the Conference - held entirely virtually for the first time - brings together over 31 ministers and deputy-ministers, in total over 270 representatives from 51 Members in Europe and Central Asia, making it the highest attendance at a Regional Conference for Europe. Representatives of international organizations, the civil society and the private sector are also participating in the Conference, which is held biennially.

In his opening address, the Director-General QU Dongyu thanked Uzbekistan for their flexibility in hosting the Conference virtually, and welcomed the representatives from civil society, private sector and other partners, stressing that their presence and contribution enriches the discussion.

The FAO Director-General also highlighted that the region is an economic and agricultural powerhouse but also faces many enduring and new challenges.

These include "pressure on natural resources, land degradation and water scarcity in large parts of the region, persisting food insecurity but also growing levels of obesity, increasing gaps between rural and urban areas, gender inequalities and enduring pockets of hunger and poverty in many rural areas," he said, noting that innovation and digital technologies are crucial to promote modern sustainable agriculture and rural development.

"Digital technologies such as satellite imaging, remote sensors and mobile and blockchain applications promise revolutionary changes for smallholder farmers and consumers," he said, pointing out that "they can help optimize food chains, increase access to markets, reduce food loss and waste, improve water management and fight pests and diseases".

"Global issues such as sustainable agricultural development, climate change, living conditions, and youth unemployment in rural areas are becoming especially acute and require increased attention, especially in light of the spread of COVID-19 in the world," stressed Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Shukhrat Ganiev in his opening address. Uzbekistan's Minister for Agriculture, Jamshid Khodjaev, is chairing the Regional Conference.

The Chair of the previous Session of the European Regional Conference, held by Russia in 2018, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Alexey Gordeev stressed the importance of strengthening partnerships with civil society and the private sector as well as maintaining a constructive dialogue with other regions.

Innovative tools and approaches for tailor-made support

In response to challenges facing the region, the FAO Director-General highlighted some key achievements, such as a strategy for accessing the Green Climate Fund, which resulted in two major projects starting in 2021 to address climate change challenges in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, FAO's normative and field work on land consolidation, as well as the Regional Gender Strategy and country gender assessments that are contributing to the empowerment of rural women across the region.

Qu also noted the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on existing challenges and highlighted the recently launched FAO's comprehensive COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme, "which aims to mitigate immediate impacts while strengthening the long-term resilience of agri-food systems and livelihoods".

FAO Director-General Qu also alluded to FAO's flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative - an evidence-based, initiative aimed at ending hunger and poverty in countries that cannot be left behind. The Initiative deploys sophisticated tools and analytics such as the Hand-in-Hand Geospatial Platform and Data Lab for Statistical Innovation to accelerate agricultural transformation and sustainable rural development.

"The Hand-in-Hand approach is flexible and open to all countries. Countries can be beneficiaries and contributors at the same time and I invite you to join this country-owned and country-led initiative," he said.

The FAO chief also announced the launch of the Food Coalition later this week, on the 5th of November. The Food Coalition - proposed by the Government of Italy and led by FAO - is a new global alliance to help Members cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their food systems and agriculture sectors.

Qu also invited country delegations to nominate locations to take part in FAO's new 1 000 Digital Villages Project, which will convert villages or towns into digital hubs, recognizing that digital linkages and rural tourism could be engines to increase resilience, diversify farmers' incomes and build back better.

Healthy diets and sustainable agri-food systems

Agri-food systems in Europe and Central Asia are diverse, at different stages of development and experiencing different external pressures and challenges. These include limited public spending, natural resources constraints and socio-political considerations. COVID-19 has exposed these fragilities but it also reinforced the importance of resilient food systems.  

In 2021, the United Nations will convene the Food Systems Summit - focused on transforming food systems to change course and realize the vision of the 2030 Agenda. A way forward towards a successful Summit was presented by Agnes Kalibata, the United Nations Special Envoy for the Food Systems Summit.

Kalibata reiterated the UN's Secretary-General's call for the Summit to be both a "People's Summit" and a "Solutions' Summit" and thanked FAO and the other UN Agencies based in Rome (IFAD and WFP) for their support: "Without this help, the preparations for the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 wouldn't be possible," she said.

Kalibata also presented the Summit's objectives: ensuring access to safe and nutritious food; shifting to sustainable consumption patterns; boosting a nature-positive production at sufficient scales; advancing equitable livelihoods and value distribution; and building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses.

"Your deliberations on healthy diets and food systems will contribute to advancing the FAO global agenda, especially in the context of the UN Food Systems Summit," noted also the FAO Director-General.

Several other speakers, including Uzbekistan's Deputy Prime Minister Shukhrat Ganiev and the Independent Chairperson of FAO's Council Khalid Mehboob, pointed out the need to pay attention to both the quantity and quality of the food produced.

Although the prevalence of both undernourishment and child stunting is low in this region, the increase in obesity is of great concern in the European and Central Asia region, given the high prevalence of obesity, ranging from 18 percent of the adult population in Central Asia to 23 percent in Europe on average and reaching as high as 28 percent in some Members. Micronutrient deficiencies remain a problem throughout the region.

The 32nd Session of the Regional Conference for Europe ends on 4 November, and it is the last of a series of virtual FAO regional conferences that included Asia and the Pacific; Near East; Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa.

Photo: ©FAO
Speakers at the opening session of the FAO Regional Conference for Europe. From left: FAO Director-General QU Dongyu; Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Shukhrat Ganiev; Jamshid Khodjaev Agriculture Minister of Uzbekistan, Chair; Vladimir Rakhmanin, FAO Assistant-Director General, Regional Representative for Europe and Central Asia; Independent Chairperson of the Council, Khalid Mehboob; Alexey Gordeev, Chairperson of the 31th Session of the Regional Conference for Europe.