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Harnessing local agriculture production to create healthy diets

FAO Director-General: Innovation and experience-sharing across regions key to transforming agri-food systems

1 April 2021, Rome - Harnessing local agriculture production around the world to create healthy diets through agri-food system-transformation was the focus of a high-level event organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and involving leaders and experts.

Under the framework of its Regional Network on Nutrition-sensitive Food System, FAO's Regional Office for Near East and North Africa co-hosted the special virtual event with FAO's Regional Offices for Africa and for Asia and the Pacific.

The virtual dialogue was opened on Wednesday by FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu, and brought together leaders from Africa, Asia and the Near East as well as senior officials from FAO with the goal of strengthening cross-regional collaboration and sharing ideas on how to harness the potential of agri-food systems

In his opening remarks, the Director-General stressed that innovation and experience-sharing were critical for transforming agri-food systems and making them more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable.

Citing the widespread structural reforms he has undertaken at FAO since his election in 2019, Qu stressed the importance of "breaking down silos" so individuals, organizations and countries could learn from one another. "We need to accumulate more experience, interactive experience," he said. "We have to have more hybridization, heterosis of experience, it is the only way. You can read more books but you also need more interaction."

In addition to technical innovation, the Director-General noted that there were several major requirements needed to drive transformation. Apart from structural reform, he alluded to the need for social interaction, knowledge combined with experience and stability to enable organizations and their staff to evolve and grow.

He particularly emphasized the need for a vibrant exchange of views and experience - as FAO seeks the same through its employees worldwide. Drawing on his expertise as a geneticist, the Director-General indicated that interaction with others combined with knowledge and expertise were essential in bringing about real change.

Poor diets are the main contributor to the global burden of disease and over dependence on a few staple crops is a leading cause of low dietary diversity and persistent malnutrition. Approximately 3 billion people in the world cannot afford a healthy diet, and more than three billion people suffer from one or more manifestations of poor nutrition.

Mahmoud El Solh, member of the Steering Committee of the Committee on World Food Security's High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, gave the keynote address on "Harnessing the benefits of diversified agri-food system for healthy diets".

Environmental degradation and the impact of climate change were among the challenges, he said, in addressing hunger and poverty in the world's poorest countries.  El Solh spoke about the urgency required if the world is to bridge the gap and increase food production by 70 percent by 2050.

Mariam bint Mohammed Saeed Hareb Al Mheiri, the Minister of State for Food and Water Security in the United Arab Emirates, called for greater awareness and education to promote sustainable food while supporting local production with technology and innovation.

The Minister indicated that the UAE Government was seeking to reduce the country's dependence on food imports and had accelerated discussions between academics, the private and the public sector to advance local food production. She added that FAO had played an important role as a partner advising the UAE on data and information.

Aly Abousabaa, the Director-General of the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), a Beirut-based research institute, said diversity was the key to resilience and invited participants to consider whether the right policies were in place to leverage technology and development.

Thanawat Tiensin, Chair of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and Permanent Representative of the Government of Thailand to the UN Agencies in Rome, encouraged participants to refer to the CFS guidelines and to translate them into actions to transform agri-food systems and create better outcomes for all.

FAO's Chief Scientist, Ismahane Elouafi, moderated a session on the role of research and science. She echoed the Director-General in calling for "a holistic approach" noting science and technology were key to creating a world free from poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

While moderating a session on policies and investment, FAO's Chief Economist, Máximo Torero, stressed the need for a multi-sector approach to produce healthy nutrition and pointed to FAO's evidence-based, country-led and country-owned Hand-in-Hand Initiative,  which is designed to accelerate agricultural transformation.

FAO has recently launched a dedicated website on country's good practices to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, through which FAO Representatives publish articles on successful activities.

Photo: ©FAO/Olivier Asselin
Native to the Andes, the vegetable, Amaranth, is grown in Africa, the Caribbean, India and China.