Director-General QU Dongyu

FAO in review: The first fully digital United Nations agency

FAO is helping countries expand the use of digital tools to small-scale farmers in rural areas around the world. © FAO/Lekha Edirisinghe

The Food and Agriculture Organization is the first United Nations agency to operate in a fully digital manner, an achievement that has placed it in a strong position to handle day-to-day operations during COVID-19 and to face the challenges of a rapidly transforming world.

The digital push by FAO Director-General QU Dongyu has ensured that FAO remained ahead of the curve over the past three years marked by the global pandemic – guaranteeing work continuity and growth, despite the most challenging circumstances. Today, we can see that the strengthening of a ‘Digital FAO’ is a key accelerator for transformation towards achieving the Organization's Four Betters – Better Production, Better Nutrition, a Better Environment and a Better Life = and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – leaving no one behind.

Meeting a digital demand

FAO held its first fully virtual UN meeting in April 2020, together with the African Union Commission, and with virtual interpretation in all six official languages. Since then, hundreds of meetings have been held in virtual or hybrid form, and the FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific held in March in Dhaka, for instance, was fully paperless.

The shift has been made possible by the implementation of the Digital Workplace - a wholistic digital productivity engine that provides the transformed environment for FAO to best deliver on its work. It comprises a set of digital solutions and tools so that all FAO employees can perform their work regardless of location or time zone, fully enabling remote and digital work, thereby contributing to the transformation of the Organization.

© FAO/Giulio Napolitano

The digital push by Director-General QU Dongyu has ensured that FAO remained ahead of the curve during the global pandemic. © FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Digital initiatives around the world

At the global level, FAO has vast experience in the development and use of geospatial data, methods and tools, and digital public goods, which are used to assist local, national and global partners in their efforts to create sustainable agrifood systems. 

FAO's open access and award-winning, Hand in Hand (HiH) Geospatial Platform, for example, provides food security indicators and agricultural statistics to support more targeted agriculture interventions. The platform unlocks millions of data layers from different domains and sources to serve as the key enabling tool for FAO's HiH Initiative - serving digital agriculture experts, economists, government and non-government agencies, and other stakeholders working in the agrifood sectors.

Since the launch of the platform in 2020, over 65 countries and institutions have participated in workshops to learn how leveraging data and technology can contribute to digital agriculture transformation and rural development. 

Another initiative is the International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture. Established in December 2020, this is an inclusive multi-stakeholder forum designed to promote dialogue on the digitalization of food and agriculture. 

Finally, the 1000 Digital Villages Initiative was created by FAO in 2020 to support countries in expanding access and use of digital tools in agrifood systems and rural territories. The aim is to enable small-scale farmers to improve their livelihoods by bringing digital innovation closer to their needs.

FAO experts have also produced a number of reports highlighting the advantages of digitalization, such as The State of Food and Agriculture 2022 report, which looks into the drivers of agricultural automation and its role in making food production more efficient and more environmentally friendly, and are exploring the potential use of blockchain technology to feed more people without exacerbating the climate crisis.

A series of digital maps have also been produced, including the Global Map of Salt-Affected Soils, a key tool for halting salinization and boosting productivity.

“FAO is strongly committed to digital transformation, with its tangible impact and significant potential towards eradicating hunger and poverty and achieving the sustainable development goals,” said Dejan Jakovljevic, Chief Information Officer and Director of FAO's Digitalization and Informatics Division.

He emphasised that “digital expansion is already changing lives and making a transformational impact on agrifood systems, by supporting policy-making, providing key information and connecting various stakeholders, but also by giving the right tools into the hands of farmers.”