FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Asia–Pacific region’s vulnerability to COVID-19 pandemic speeds up adoption of digital tech in agrifood systems

FAO Director-General tells Regional Conference innovation can unlock new potential, bridge urban rural divide and empower youth and women

Innovation is improving smallholders’ access to information, inputs and markets
11/03/2022 Dhaka/Rome

Agrifood systems in the Asia-Pacific region have been particularly vulnerable to shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges, quickening the adoption of digital technologies, QU Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said.

Qu was speaking in a special event entitled “Innovation, Science and Digitalization: Transforming agrifood systems in Asia and the Pacific region” at FAO’s 36th Asia Pacific Regional Conference. He said the systems governing how our food is produced, distributed and consumed have been “heavily affected by shocks created by the pandemic and other challenges”, with the Asia-Pacific region “particularly vulnerable to these shocks.”

“This has forced us to reconsider our priorities and approaches, and has highlighted the importance of more sustainable and resilient societies,” Qu said, adding that digital technologies are having a profound impact on our economies and societies and are transforming agrifood markets. “This transformation has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

About 40 percent of the Asia Pacific region's inhabitants cannot afford a healthy diet and in some areas the fight to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals of defeating poverty (SDG 1) and hunger (SDG 2) has been set back.

On the other hand, there has been increasing movement towards innovation and digitalization along the entire agrifood value chain. In retail grocery and food shopping, four out of every five online food and grocery purchases take place in the region.

Meanwhile in the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the Pacific, a growing number of entrepreneurs are developing ideas such as smartphone apps, which help producers and consumers make informed, nutritious choices. And the leveraging of data is helping to improve the supply chain of agricultural commodities to markets and to map areas vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Also participating in the event were ministers and senior officials from Sri Lanka, Vanuatu, Bangladesh and Mongolia. They highlighted a range of key focus areas in innovation from improving data capture and collection, to linking up producers with markets, using technology to make agriculture a more appealing profession to the young and the importance of public-private partnerships.

“No one size fits all,” in approaches to innovation, FAO’s Chief Scientist, Ismahane Elouafi, stressed. “A holistic approach is needed to transform agrifood systems, one that harnesses the potential of technologies and innovation,” she added.

Digital innovation unlocks potential

Qu said digital innovation in agriculture holds the potential to unlock employment opportunities, bridge the rural divide and empower youth and women to access information, technology and markets, helping to:

  • facilitate access to markets;
  • meet the growing demand for safe and nutritious food through digital traceability;
  • better manage natural resources;
  • contribute to high quality growth in productivity through digital tools for extension;
  • ensure inclusion.

In the agrifood sector, the spread of mobile technologies, remote-sensing services and interlinked servers is already improving smallholders’ access to information, inputs and markets, increasing production, streamlining supply chains and reducing operational costs.

Turning vision into concrete support

FAO has introduced a number of programmes and initiatives to turn this vision into concrete support and delivery for its Members:

These include FAO’s Digital Portfolio, leading the holistic concept of a digital Organization within the UN system; the 1000 Digital Villages Initiative, which aims to convert villages into digital hubs to help accelerate rural transformation and reduce the digital gap, including the gender and rural divide; the Hand-in-Hand Geospatial Platform, a digital public good to create interactive data maps, analyse trends and identify real-time gaps and opportunities in order to better target investments; FAO’s International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture, aiming to bring together all stakeholders for a constructive dialogue on the use of digital technologies for agriculture.

In addition, Qu said, FAO is also contributing to the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation by championing Digital Public Goods.

Digitalization will be supported by FAO’s first-ever thematic strategy on Science and Innovation, which will also encompass social, institutional, policy and financial spheres. The Strategy is designed to boost the organization’s capacity to provide guidance on new and emerging technologies, especially to low and middle-income countries, which face many challenges in accessing science and innovation. It is also aimed at making it easier to bring diverse actors together to collaborate in scaling up promising innovations.

Among the issues which the new thematic strategy is expected to address are: strengthening the lab-to-land link and access to technologies; reinforcing the science-policy interface to ensure the development of evidence-based strategies; governance and regulatory issues; inter- and trans-disciplinary research; and enhanced dialogue and communication on contentious scientific issues, including prevailing power asymmetries and socioeconomic inequalities that affect science and innovation.

FAO is uniquely placed to support its Members in strengthening national policy frameworks for enhanced science and innovation and identifying research priorities and communicating them to the major research institutions

The organization sums up its mission in transforming agrifood systems, as working to achieve better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life for all, leaving no one behind. 


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