Academia and research institutions: a key partner in FAO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

07/07/2020 - 

As the world copes with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing urgency to prevent the current health crisis from becoming a food crisis. Measures taken to contain and mitigate the coronavirus have affected people’s lives and livelihoods and have disrupted markets, food supply chains and global trade. In the agriculture sector, reduced capacity to produce, sell and distribute food has affected food availability in local markets, with consequent further impacts on food and nutrition security.

The pandemic has created a new set of challenges for food and agriculture, and adequately addressing these will require new, creative approaches, where expertise is shared among different sectors. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) already partners with various non-state actors to carry out its mandate and to achieve the SDGs; among these partners are academia and research institutions, which are key to catalyzing capacity development, research, innovation and interdisciplinary knowledge-sharing.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, what role can partnerships with academia play? On July 1, representatives from academic and research institutions met with representatives of FAO Members and FAO staff for a virtual roundtable. Guided by Marcela Villarreal, Director of FAO’s Partnerships Division, participants looked at opportunities for leveraging partnerships with academic and research institutions to prevent the current health crisis from turning into a food crisis.

Beth Bechdol, FAO Deputy Director-General, opened the discussion with some sobering statistics. “According to the latest estimates, almost 135 million people in 55 countries or territories were classified in food crisis conditions or worse in 2019,” she began. “More than half of those people lived in 36 counties in Africa. With the onset of COVID-19, food import-dependent and fragile countries are exposed to accelerated levels of hunger and malnutrition.” FAO, in partnership with non-state actors, must be fit to mitigate the impact of the current global pandemic to avoid a health crisis becoming a food crisis.

How can academia and research institutions contribute in the current context? H.E. Mohammad Hossein Emadi, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to FAO and Rome-Based Agencies, explained that both analysis and solutions are needed. He described academia and research institutions as “critical to present the voice of science, in order to improve the highly problematic situation in all three dimensions of the crisis - health, economic and food security.” Academia can provide essential elements in each of the three dimensions, such as the research needed for vaccines, the scientific backing for sound economic policies, and the innovation and advocacy needed to strengthen food systems which have been negatively affected by the pandemic.

Panelists from various academic and research institutions then took the floor to discuss where they saw opportunities for FAO and academia to work together to address the crisis and prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

Patrick Stover, vice chancellor and dean for agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M AgriLife and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, spoke of the importance of partnerships as essential infrastructure in any crisis. “We must be able to deploy our expertise rapidly in a crisis,” he explained, “and our capability to respond in a crisis is built upon the backbone of numerous relationships cultivated over many years. No one can go it alone.”

The panelists identified scientific research, data and capacity building as some of the most important contributions that academia could make. Shenggen Fan, Chair Professor at China Agricultural University and former Director-General of International Food Policy Research Institute, stressed that while new technologies can assist us in achieving food security and nutrition, having timely data - such as data on food prices - is critical. For this, cross-sectoral partnerships are essential: in order to identify gaps and weaknesses, we will need data not only from traditional sources, but also big data from the private sector.

Access to real-time data is crucial in order to effectively respond to the crisis and protect people’s livelihoods, agreed Pascal Bergeret, Director of the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Montpellier at the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM). In order to protect the most vulnerable, we will need targeted and relevant policy tools, he explained, noting that academia and research institutions could work with policymakers to ensure that such policies are backed by strong scientific evidence.

Harold Roy-Macauley, the Director General of Africa Rice Center, also emphasized the importance of international research in enhancing food systems, both in the response to COVID-19 and in the recovery period. The survival of the most vulnerable people would depend on smart public programs, he said. “The Covid-19 pandemic is an awakening call for governments to embrace an agri-food systems approach to research for development policy formulation and implementation, in order to flatten the food insecurity curve.”

What else can academia offer FAO and its Members? According to Louise Fresco, President of the Executive Board of Wageningen University & Research, partnerships with universities provide two special things: the substance for solid evidence-based policy making and the creative power and commitment of young students. “I would like to encourage FAO to be a convenor to bring together science, policy makers, the private sector and youth,” she suggested, “to build a trusting, inclusive, and interdisciplinary dialogue on some of the pressing issues around the effects of COVID-19 on food systems.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us to what extent our food systems are interconnected and global. In order to respond effectively, we will need to work together and share knowledge across sectors. Academia and research institutions have an important role to play in contributing to the solution, from providing data and scientific evidence which governments and policy makers can use, to training the next generation to respond to crises. Strong partnerships with academia and research institutions will ensure that FAO has access to the scientific knowledge and capacities that are essential to address not only the current pandemic, but similar crises which may arise in the future.


The virtual roundtable may be viewed in its entirety here