Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of FAO, talks about how agri-food systems are part of the solution to the climate crisis ahead of COP26
Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization
Rome - The Deputy Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Maria Helena Semedo, is an economist and politician from Cape Verde who has development and sustainability close to her heart. Ahead of the upcoming United Nations’ Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, we ask her how the Rome-based UN agency is working to help end world hunger while addressing the climate crisis.
What should happen for COP26 to be considered a success?
Now is the moment for countries to recommit. The United States, one of the important players in this equation, is back. We have commitments from China, another important player. If countries go to Glasgow and say: "We, together, recommit to achieve what we agreed in Paris," that would be a very important step forward for the world. Now we really need global actions - at scale. Another key issue is financing. The challenge will be to make sure that countries honour the goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year for mitigation and adaptation. And if we can also attract annual investments of about $40 to $50 billion until 2030 to fund targeted, low-cost, high-impact interventions — like agricultural R&D, innovation, digital agriculture, reduction of food loss and waste, literacy improvement for women, and social protection programmes – we can build resilient, inclusive and sustainable agri-food systems that lift hundreds of millions of people from hunger. We need pledges to be increased. But we can't be incremental, we need to be transformative. To feed the world and protect nature we need Glasgow to be forward-looking, ambitious and transformative.
Do you think that countries will be able to overcome their differences in Glasgow?
All our challenges are interrelated - we are at a critical point for safeguarding our planet and feeding a growing world population. We can’t afford to take an isolated approach. During our climate discussions we have at times addressed the issue of responsibility and of those who are now paying the price for a problem they didn't contribute to. Now is the time for common responsibility. Let's find a solution together and let's commit together. We have a global responsibility and action should come from every country, small and big. And the decisions that will be taken will also have consequences for the way we produce, transform, distribute and consume food.
What is the role of FAO and of our agri-food systems at the COP26 negotiations? What do you think of the debate on the contributions of livestock to global emissions?
The agri-food sector is seen as a big contributor to climate change - around one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, depending on how they are counted. So, yes, we contribute, but we are part of the solution, and we have the solutions. Let's discuss those solutions, let's see how we can be more efficient in the way we produce. For instance, we can easily cut methane emissions by up to 30 percent by improving feeding, genetics, and the health of livestock and dairy animals; more livestock by-products should be recycled and used where possible as feed, fuel, and fertilizer; early warning systems can help farmers in vulnerable rural communities deal with the impacts of climate change.
Livestock is often seen as the bad sector. We at FAO keep saying: they have to be at the negotiating table. If they are not part of the discussion, they cannot bring solutions. Keep in mind that in some countries people consume an average of 100 kilograms of meat a year, in others it’s only 3. So, it’s about finding the right balance. Also, the livelihoods of many people in Asia and Africa depend on the livestock sector. It would be better if those people were not made unemployed. Let's help them become more sustainable. We are already changing the way we produce and grow our food for people and the planet, but more needs to be done. This is what FAO wants to bring to the conversation we will be having at COP26.
What can women and Indigenous People bring to the table?
Women are on the front line, they are the most affected by the climate crisis, yet they are the ones who don't have the means when there's a flood or a drought. All too often, they don't have access to education, they don't have access to innovation, they don't have access to finance. Yet they are the backbone of our agri-food system. They are the producers, the ones feeding the family. If we don't take them into consideration, we will not achieve the results we want. Indigenous People have valuable knowledge about how to produce sustainably, how to use biodiversity for diverse, healthy diets using only what is available to them. We need to support and empower them, because they don't always have a voice in decision-making processes.
There are other ways in which the climate crisis can be tackled. For example, by reducing deforestation and boosting carbon sequestration in the soil. How is FAO helping in these areas?
Globally, an estimated 30% of landscapes are degraded. This means that restoring agricultural land and degraded soils can remove up to 51 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere – considering that carbon dioxide emissions alone are expected to reach 33 gigatonnes this year, we can see that restoring land and soils is a true winning solution. In Paraguay, where deforestation and forest degradation are widespread, we are helping 87,000 people, many of them from indigenous communities, by providing cash transfers to those who manage forests sustainably. When we think of restoration, we must also think of water. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscored how climate change is dramatically affecting the water cycle, making droughts and floods more extreme and frequent, while rising increasing temperatures are causing sea levels to rise. As agriculture accounts for 72 percent of freshwater withdrawals, actions and investment are needed to produce more with less water and support adaptation to climate change. FAO is also leading large-scale initiatives, such as the Great Green Wall across the Sahel, and is preparing a map that will help identify areas with a high potential for carbon sequestration in the soil. And we must reduce our food loss and waste, which account for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and cost US$ 400 billion in food value.
FAO is working more and more in partnership with the private sector. What is the importance of this relationship?