Committee on World Food Security

Making a difference in food security and nutrition

Remarks by CFS Chair at the FAO Science and Innovation Forum 2022 event on "Levelling the playing field: Eliminating inequalities in accessing science, technology and innovation across value chains"

21 Oct 2022

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Thank you, Thin.

Excellencies, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to join you here today at the FAO Science and Innovation Forum and speak about eliminating inequalities in accessing science, technology and innovation across value chains.

From AI applications and robotics, to data science and automation, our food systems are becoming a melting pot of science, innovation and tech.

Add to these block-chain, alternative proteins, off-grid renewable energy, and the many innovations we are witnessing, and you have a sector for which tech can help address the enormous challenges we face in delivering truly sustainable development.

The results are evident, at least in production. Today, the world produces 150% more food on only 13% more land compared with 1960, mostly thanks to innovations in food production over the years, those that focused almost exclusively on increasing output.

In fact, we produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, in a world of just over 7 billion people.

However, usually we need to look at the bigger picture to have a complete understanding of this potential… versus the actual impact. Looking at the forest, not just the trees.

For us, the big picture today is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate. The big picture is the impact on eradicating poverty, on women’s empowerment, on diminishing inequalities, on preserving ecosystems or on climate action.

Are we unleashing the full transformative power of innovation for ending hunger and malnutrition, in a way that ensures decent living wages and protection of rights for those who produce the food we eat and preserve our planet?

Unfortunately, the answer is: NOT YET!

Despite decades of innovations, and years of exponential progress of bio and digital technology applied to agriculture, our food systems face multiple, interconnected and complex challenges like never before:

Hunger and malnutrition abound, amidst this abundance of food. According to the latest SOFI report

  • More than 800 million people were going hungry in the world in 2021. 
  • 2.3 billion people were moderately or severely food insecure; and
  • Nearly 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020. 

And these are not the only failures of our food systems. Agriculture and food production:

  • Account for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Consume 70% of the world’s fresh water; and
  • Contribute up to two thirds of biodiversity loss worldwide.

What does all this mean?

It means that while science, innovations and technologies have had positive impacts, they have clearly not worked for ALL people, or for the overall benefit of the planet.

It is not the unavailability of high tech that is the problem; it is a problem of access and affordability for by the vast majority of food producers –smallholders and family farmers who produce 80% of the food we eat, but remain mired in poverty and suffer most from ever worsening challenges of climate change, conflicts, and now pandemics.

For all its glory, tech revolution has perpetuated, if not increased, inequalities.

How then do we achieve a sustainable, tech-enabled food future?

Agricultural tech and innovations alone will not be the solution.

The existence of mobile phones, the 5G internet, satellite images, real-time Artificial Intelligence models for weather forecast, climate-resilient seeds, drones…

They are all necessary but not sufficient.

Universal access by all, accessibility by those excluded to those innovations is key.

In Africa the mobile money innovation - M-Pesa, and many other inclusion-led business models, together with SMEs led by women, accompanied by public policies and programs, are empowering smallholder farmers to access finance and information.

Let’s innovate around the impact on reducing inequalities of universal access to 4G and free-cost apps that combine cost-free weather forecast, satellite images, soil analysis and water needs assessments, plant-health and pest diagnosis, access to microcredit, in the hands of all small-scale and family farmers mobile phones?

Innovate for universal access to improved, climate-resilient seeds that build on indigenous varieties?

Innovaate to reward small-scale and family farmers directly and pay them for the ecosystem services they provide, such as carbon capture, biodiversity conservation or soil restoration, by making use of their mobile-phone cameras combined with satellite images?

To achieve this, we need innovation in the way we govern of our food systems, what I like to call ‘governance innovation.’ One that is equality-driven.

A major hallmark of governance innovation will be adoption of a “food systems” perspective – cognizant of the various trade-offs associated with choosing one pathway versus another.

A perspective that will reward sustainable, nature-based solutions; encourage less energy consumption; promote application of organic over chemical inputs; and apply water efficiency.

More important, such a perspective will respect the rights and knowledge of food workers and indigenous peoples through inclusive decision-making.

How do we ensure governance innovation firmly takes root and produces fruit?

I propose seven key principles for innovative policies and effective governance architecture at the heart of our food systems:

  1. Innovate while protecting and respecting the rights of all stakeholders, particularly the most vulnerable, to participate fairly in decision-making around food systems. Innovation must feature inclusive and participatory decision-making, involving a diverse set of stakeholders - be they smallholder farmers, women, youth, indigenous communities, community-based organizations, consumers, entrepreneurs, or others;
  2. Innovate for food systems transformation with positive social and environmental impacts by adopting nature-positive and sustainable approaches while ensuring equitable livelihoods;
  3. Innovate to encourage open-access solutions, joined-up collective action and differentiated knowledge sharing;
  4. Innovate to reconfigure value chains and marketplaces to reduce inherent biases; ensure equitable access, include protection for consumers; reduce unintended consequences and support the co-creation of proposed solutions;
  5. Innovate to encourage polices, incentives, financial and de-risking tools to promote accelerated and self-sustaining innovation supporting prioritised food system transformation outcomes;
  6. Innovate to align food systems ecosystems with those of other sectors such as health, environment, consumer protection, education and extension services;
  7. Innovate to identify and scale solutions that build the resilience of food systems by targeting compounded risks and stressors like climate extremes, disasters, conflict, instability, economic shocks, pandemics, and migration.

These Principles reflect the very DNA of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS).

Established in 1974 and reformed in 2009, CFS serves as the foremost inclusive intergovernmental UN platform that connects governments and other stakeholders to agree on science-based food security and nutrition policy guidelines in the context of agri-food systems transformation.

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

As I conclude, I would like to emphasize that individual technologies, innovations and scientific breakthroughs are important but are not our “silver bullets.”

We won’t invent our way out of the global challenges we face, if we are not willing to innovate the way we govern ourselves and our food systems for truly sustainable development.

As a start, I offer the CFS policy tools and reports.

These are public goods that:

  • One, inspire and guide governments and individuals in the formulation of policies, strategies, legislation, regulatory frameworks;
  • Two, empower all stakeholders to build a vibrant innovation ecosystem at global, regional and national levels, to maximize potential impact, and to mitigate unintended consequences.

I encourage you to promote their uptake and continue using the unique CFS global platform.

Once again, thank you for inviting me and look forward to what promises to be an interesting discussion here today.

Thank you all!