FAO Liaison Office in Brussels

Interview with FAO Chief Scientist, Ismahane Elouafi

28/10/2021

It has been almost a year since you became the first-ever FAO Chief Scientist – congratulations! What were your initial expectations when you accepted the role and now, a year later, how do you feel the role has contributed to the new FAO?

When I first accepted the role of Chief Scientist in FAO, I was delighted to join an organization that has as its mandate ending hunger and poverty worldwide. It was clear to me that FAO was taking science, technology and innovation very seriously when it created a leadership position to effectively lead the transformation within FAO towards more science- and evidence-based programmes and initiatives.

So I knew I was joining an Organization that fully believed in the power of science, technology and innovation (STI), and has been using STI for over 76 years since its inception. After almost one year with FAO, I can confirm that the potential of science and innovation to accelerate, amplify and intensify the impact of efforts to end hunger and poverty is tremendous. I have seen a wonderful willingness to embark on a more science-based agenda here at headquarters, and even more at the country level as well as in the regional offices. So we have the will, but finding the way is really the issue. That is why FAO is developing a Science and Innovation Strategy that we hope will be finalized and approved by the Council in June 2022.

One of the roles of my office is to strengthen dialogue on science, including by developing knowledge and expertise and brings to bear the foremost science-based evidence on cross-sectoral, multi-disciplinary priority issues related to agri-food systems at the global level. FAO must act as a catalyst for leveling the playing field so that countries can make evidence-based decisions and action on what technologies and innovations to adopt and adapt in sustaining their food security and nutrition. Engaging on issues that are contentious and have presented communication challenges is thus imperative. By March 2022, a final report will be made available that looks at new technologies and innovations that will be available on the market in the next 10 to 15 years. This foresight exercise will be done together with all stakeholders, including the private sector, so that we have a clearer idea of what lies ahead.

We are also looking at how we can speed up innovation at country level and have been connecting with the scientific community on the ground to better understand their challenges find innovative solutions together. In this way, we can analyze those common threads that have led to success across the globe, particularly in the Global South. The idea is really to gather country-level information that will allow us to understand what underpins the success stories in certain countries, as well as the gaps and lessons learned in others. In so doing we will be in a better position to argue for the uptake of adoption of innovation and technology across sectors. This will become an annual outlook and we envisage the first edition out in 2022.

Another area that I am excited about is the development of a small-scale irrigation project for the Sahel region. We want to look at the pathways for more investments to improve small scale farming and scale up effective irrigation technologies and innovations for sustainable agricultural water management in the two targeted countries.

 

You have had a fascinating start to your career, training as a pilot for fighter airplanes in Morocco, until the programme was stopped for women. How did that mark you and influence who you are today? And as a follow-up question, what is your advice for girls and women aspiring to work in male-dominated industries such as science and innovation, in particular, as the world doubles its efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

When I was in high school, I was very good at mathematics, which prompted my teacher to encourage me to enroll at a special aeronautics school where they were training Morocco’s first female fighter pilots. My parents were initially against the idea, but I was very stubborn and eventually, they relented and accepted my decision. I was in the programme for three years when the military decided that because I was female I could not continue and my career as a pilot came to a crashing halt before it had even begun. The experience had a profound effect on me as I found it so unfair. But it was a pivotal moment that had me pursue a career in science, even though it was a male-dominated field.

I am a strong believer that women and girls should be given equal rights, equal education and equal opportunities. Every woman deserves a chance to develop her career in any field, including science. If we look at what has happened in education over the last 40 years, we have seen huge numbers of women that make it to university. And in most universities, in many parts of the world, you find that there are more than 50 percent of women enrolled in courses. In some countries, these figures amount to more than 70 percent of women.

However, these numbers start to dwindle when you go to the workplace. The higher we climb in the corporate ladder, the fewer women you find.  I would say that we are still a long way from gender parity and we need to do more to redress the situation. We need to do more to provide women in developing countries with the opportunities to be educated and with the opportunities to the workplace, particularly to access leadership positions. So the policies and programmes that we put in place should be gender-sensitive and should encourage and facilitate more women to participate in high numbers. We need a critical mass of women in many sectors.

My message to girls and young women who want to pursue a career in science and innovation is that they are very much needed in this sector. We need more women in STEM more than ever because I believe that as women, we understand better how to help other women have a better life, a better livelihood, be healthy, nurture their kids and their families. So we need to encourage women by providing the opportunities and the right environment in which they can thrive. We also need to protect the young ones when they are still learning. I think many women, if they are given the opportunity, will rise up to the challenge to deliver and contribute significantly to the development of humankind.

 

Concerning the role of science and innovation – which of the main challenges that the world is facing today to eradicate hunger and defeat malnutrition do you believe science can solve, and how? 

I think science can solve many of the interconnected challenges we face, not only one or only two issues. The issue of how much we produce can be solved with science and innovation, whereby we could find better ways to avail of the biodiversity we have, by using the existing species and producing the right crop, the right animal, the right fish, the right fibre in the right place. Currently there is a mismatch between what the ecosystem can produce sustainably and what we are producing in many parts of the world. That is because most of these decisions are not based on know-how and the fact that we need to produce more to cater for the growing population. I believe that science and innovation can help to ensure better production with less inputs.

On the issue of better nutrition, again, we could do much more with science and innovation More than 6000 plant species have been cultivated for food. Fewer than 200 make major contributions to food production globally, regionally or nationally. Only 9 account for 66% of total crop production. We have really reduced the nutritional profiling because we have been playing within a very narrow genetic base. This can be redressed by broadening the number of species used and by including those neglected and underutilized species, and also through the use of science and innovation. So we could use technology to not only produce more, but also to increase the diversity of what we produce, which would give us better nutrition and a better environment.

From an environmental standpoint, there are a number of scientific and technological approaches that can minimize our footprint, be it in GHG emissions, use of water, soil or nutrients. There are so many things that we could do to reduce the footprint of the agri-food system and make it part of the solution. Currently, agriculture is using the majority of the freshwater, and it is emitting about 30 percent of greenhouse gas, but let us not forget that the agri-food systems are also employing 4.5 billion people. Science can help transform our agri-food systems into more sustainable ones by providing resistant varieties or tolerant varieties, or by providing agricultural practices to reduce diseases. There are numerous technologies that can help us, from reducing natural resource use to increasing productivity, while reducing our carbon footprint and our water footprint, for a better life.

Again what we must remember is that at the end of the day, our aim is to ensure that farmers have a better livelihood. Right now farmers lie at the bottom of the income pyramid as they are the least remunerated for their efforts. With the increase in productivity, and particularly in the nutritional quotient, we could ensure better livelihoods and better economies with these benefits reaching small-scale producers all over the world.

 

Europe has enormous scientific and technical capability and world-leading researchers who can contribute significantly to the Agri-Food system transformation we need. How can FAO work with the global north, including the European Union, to promote these efforts?

FAO believes that innovation, in general, and particularly in agriculture, is the central driving force for achieving a world free from hunger and malnutrition. Harnessing science, technology and innovation together with all of our partners, including the European Union, is key.

Past investments in scientific research have been too focused on the needs and ecosystems of the Global North, with technologies developed to cater to those conditions and implemented without enough consideration of local and differing contexts. In the future, research should be more inclusive and work with national governments, listening and giving an equal footing to the communities, small scale producers and farming households we serve. By providing a neutral forum for policy dialogue and policymaking, FAO works to improve the capacities of governments and other stakeholders to develop and strengthen legal, regulatory and policy frameworks that create an enabling environment for agri-food systems development. 

Our current global challenges call for a holistic view of science, technology and innovation, which includes embracing international cooperation and solidarity. In particular, a holistic approach would ensure the most impact in making significant inroads to eradicate poverty and end hunger and malnutrition. The European Union and its Member States are frontrunners with regards to science and innovation and FAO counts them as valued partners.

The support of the European Union is crucial in bridging the technological divide, tackling inequalities while accelerating the race to achieve carbon neutrality. Complex issues such as these can only be solved when powered by science, technology and innovation and accelerated through collaboration, innovative partnerships, trust, and open access to knowledge sources. The European Union is a committed Member Organization of FAO’s on these and many more issues.

For example, FAO works very closely with the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Copernicus Programme which allows FAO to use Copernicus satellites to gain knowledge and tools that will enable accurate and consistent monitoring of agricultural water use at continental, national and local scales using primarily Copernicus data sources. This enables the organization to provide solid guidance to improve global water use efficiency.