FAO Director-General marks Earth Day with sustainability plea

Marathon event hears calls for joined-up action on food security and policies for the planet

Rome and virtual locations, 22 April 2021 – The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), QU Dongyu, today told participants in a virtual Food for Earth “global marathon” that sustainability was a “fundamental concept and a cross-cutting theme throughout the Organization’s activities, interventions and initiatives”.

QU was addressing the Chinese Session of the 24-hour sustainability-themed event: timed to coincide with Earth Day, it opened in Australia and worked its way across the world’s time zones, alighting in Asia-Pacific and moving on through the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas.  Stopovers included some of the world’s largest economies: each one-hour session opened a window onto challenges particular to that country – and threw light on the best practices evolved in response.

Among speakers at the event were academics; senior policymakers; representatives of indigenous communities; youth groups; and other stakeholders at the intersection of environmental, agriculture and food security matters.

The event was jointly organized by FAO and the Future of Food Institute, an Italian NGO that works with FAO to safeguard the agri-food sector’s expertise and tradition, while boosting its innovative and entrepreneurial potential. Hosting the global virtual event from the southern Italian town of Pollica – widely seen as a capital of the Mediterranean diet – the Institute’s President, Sara Roversi, expressed pride in the FAO partnership. She spoke strongly in favour of a “holistic approach to build more sustainable food systems”.

Opening the Chinese Session, the FAO Director-General cautioned that making agricultural and rural development sustainable was far more than an academic exercise, noting that it required, a “viable design with practical and concrete measures”. He went on to outline what he described as four “crucial elements”.

The Rule of Four

First, he argued, there was an acute need for “enabling policies for production, process, trade, and investment”. Second, more investment specifically in rural areas – with improved broadband infrastructure, accessibility to roads and cold chain systems. Third, a push for innovation and science (including social, institutional, financial and technological innovations) to produce new varieties based on biotechnology, using non-polluting chemicals; and fourth – partnerships and new business models to maintain trade flow and the sustainable supply of food across regions.

The Director-General further tied these four areas of action into FAO’s “Four Betters” approach – Better Production; Better Nutrition; a Better Environment; and a Better Life. He also commended China’s record on reducing poverty, while urging its scientists to act as an interface with policymakers and turn the country into a sustainability “powerhouse”.

The partnerships angle was endorsed by Roversi, with reference to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 17 – the “how-to” goal, which provides for collaboration to fulfill the other SDGs. “Everyone”, she said, must “take responsibility”. She described the Food for Earth format as a framework where SDGs were being analysed through the prism of “integral ecology” – one which unites political, economic, human and social lenses.

China: from poverty reduction to sustainability

For his part, Dr Shenggen Fan, Dean of Global Food Economics and Policy at the China Agricultural University, echoed the FAO Director-General’s praise for China for its impressive record of reducing poverty. But like other countries, he said, China continued to suffer from pollution, resource degradation, and hidden forms of malnutrition such as micronutrient deficiencies.

Fan also echoed QU’s Rule of Four approach in his own statement of national priorities. China, he argued, should pursue transformation along these main axes: improve governance through a coordination mechanism that would encompass nutrition, climate change and agriculture; aim for “multiple wins” on nutrition and zero-carbon emissions as it develops new technologies; increase inputs  for the production of healthy and nutritious food; and strengthen international coordination to make the voice of emerging economies more audible on the global stage.

Another participant, Dr Chingweng Yang, principal expert at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, expounded on the challenges of preserving biodiversity in what is, in effect, one of the world’s most biodiverse environments. China, he explained, has more than 1,400 varieties of crops, over 700 livestock breeds, and no fewer than 4,000 species of fish.

It was left to the third participant joining the virtual marathon from Beijing, Dr Shengkui Cheng of the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to address the consumption aspect of sustainability policies. Research conducted in the second half of last decade suggested that 27 percent of all food produced in China was lost or wasted, Cheng said – in a nod to FAO’s Director-General, who earlier described food loss and waste as gravely impacting food security and sustainability.

Cheng also noted that waste in China is concentrated in catering – enough, in his calculation to feed an extra 30 to 50 million people. He concluded by outlining policies against waste – but also (again) the need for partnerships spanning from state institutions to canteens in order to educate waste out of the food circuit.

Photo: ©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos / FAO
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