Former Director-General  José Graziano da Silva
An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva

Building our future on healthy food and sustainable agriculture

After a prolonged decline, world hunger increased for a third consecutive year. New estimates show that in 2017, nearly 821 million people – approximately one out of every nine people in the world – were undernourished. Furthermore, multiple forms of malnutrition are evident across the world. Although child undernutrition continues to decline, overweight and obesity are on the rise. In many countries, poor access to healthy food gives rise to the triple burden of underweight, overweight and micronutrient deficiencies.

These developments should be of major concern to all of us. Hunger and all forms of malnutrition, including overweight and obesity, have a negative impact on health, schooling and labour productivity and, as a result, the global economy at large. With this trend, reaching Sustainable Development Goal 2, or Zero Hunger, which commits to eradicating hunger, achieving food security and better nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture by 2030, is at serious risk. A ‘business as usual’ scenario is clearly not an option. We need to act now and do more and better.

One of the major obstacles to achieve sustainable development is the changing climate. The short term impacts of a warming planet are already clear in many parts of the world in the form of higher temperatures, climate variability and extremes and are expected to accelerate in the coming decades. Climate change will affect world regions unevenly, altering conditions for agriculture and affecting both crops and livestock. Undernourishment tends to be higher in those countries more exposed to climate extremes. Nutritional outcomes are also susceptible, since the impacts of climate change are also affecting some food nutrients.  

Amidst these constant changes, one certainty remains. Agriculture has to become more sustainable, more resilient and an active contributor to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Agriculture needs to produce more using less inputs, and without adding pressure on our limited and increasingly scarce natural resources.

Sustainable agriculture and food systems also contribute to economic growth, better health and better education levels. FAO is committed to a sustainable food future. At FAO, inter alia, we provide evidence-based policy assistance and technical support to governments in pursuit of their agricultural development objectives.

Achieving Zero Hunger also requires empowering smallholders and family farmers to reduce poverty and, in the face of climate change, to manage natural resources in a sustainable way. FAO, in close collaboration with governments and other stakeholders, is putting information within reach, bringing knowledge to the field and promoting innovative models of more sustainable and inclusive agriculture as well as mechanisms to protect the poor and vulnerable.

By joining forces, we create partnerships for food security and nutrition, agriculture and rural development between governments, civil society and the private sector. The Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS), forged in 2011 following the global food price crisis, is an example of such partnerships between the G20 and international organizations. AMIS has enhanced market transparency and policy coordination in global food markets and helped to reduce sudden price hikes. 

This year, under the Presidency of the Republic of Argentina, the G20 has focused on soils. Soils are hidden and frequently forgotten, but are a central factor for achieving Zero Hunger. They are the foundation of food production and of many essential ecosystem services. Indeed, the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs recognize the need to restore degraded soils and improve soil quality.

At present, approximately 33 percent of the world’s soil resources are degraded. Soil degradation affects the productivity of agriculture, contributing to increased hunger and malnutrition. It can also result in land abandonment and involuntary migration, leading millions into poverty.

FAO has supported the G20 deliberations on this very important subject. Sustainable soil management practices improve soil health, promote biodiversity and increase soil fertility, thus contributing to sustainable productivity growth, climate change adaptation and mitigation, food security and nutrition, and poverty alleviation.

Among many activities, FAO supports the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) – a platform that strives to raise awareness among decision makers on the role of soil resources in relation to food security and climate change, and to build capacities and exchange knowledge for sustainable management of soil resources. The Partnership developed the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management, which aim to be a reference for implementing policies towards sustainable soil management worldwide.

While all countries must commit to sustainability, the G20 encompasses a large share of global agriculture production. Likewise, G20 countries account for nearly 80 percent of global agricultural trade. Changes in G20 countries can make a significant difference over the global environment and influence and shape changes across other countries.

I invite the G20 leaders to join FAO in our global efforts to free the world from the scourge of hunger and malnutrition.