Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam of Singapore gives McDougall Memorial Lecture to start FAO Conference 2023

He highlighted that food and environmental challenges are great opportunities for growth and efficiency benefits the poor

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies

©FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto

Rome - Addressing the combined challenges of food insecurity, biodiversity loss and climate change impacts can be a major source of national and global economic growth, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, told Ministers and Heads of Delegation in the first day of the 43rd Session of the FAO Conference (1-7 July).

Senior Minister Shanmugaratnam delivered this year’s McDougall Memorial Lecture, which takes place every session of the Conference and honors the legacy of Frank Lidgett McDougall, an Australian agricultural expert who was instrumental in creating FAO.

In his presentation, the Senior Minister highlighted that it is essential to address food not just in terms of hunger or the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (No Hunger), but also “as part and parcel of the broader challenge of ecological insecurity.” Nor is it just a burden for the world to share, but a huge opportunity for growth to be approached with optimism and action.

Mapping a pathway

Global hunger levels today are about one-third of what they were in 1970, indicating remarkable progress and achievements, Shanmugaratnam said.

That said, current forecasts for food insecurity and childhood stunting in 2030 are unacceptable and may even be optimistic given the real risks of accelerating “tipping points” in the Earth system, he added. Quantifying such risks may be hard but it is clear that “the direction of change is in the wrong direction,” he said.

Large-scale investment of around three percent of global gross domestic product each year for the next 30 years are needed, but successful mobilization of that amount of resources will lead to very significant increase in growth.

There is ample money in global capital markets for such investments, but tapping it requires “make the system work as a system,” which requires both policy reform and national-level efforts to bolster social trust, he said.

He also argued that traditional economistic views of a trade-off between sustainability and growth were mistaken in assuming perfect markets. By deploying appropriate technologies, crafting markets and unleashing creative finance, countries have an opportunity to pursue and achieve higher-quality economic growth.

Beneficial technologies often already exist and can be deployed with rapid payback times, while a concerted effort to scale up innovation will catalyze fuller markets and more tools accessible and affordable tools, allowing harder trade-offs to be avoided.

Global water cycle

In his lecture, Shanmugaratnam, who is currently also co-chair of the UN-backed Global Commission on the Economics of Water, also addressed the issue of water management, which is main theme of the FAO Conference 2023.

He emphasized the central role of improved water management in achieving global hunger, climate and environmental goals, noting that as agriculture is by far the main user of freshwater, agrifood systems are a critical arena for intervention.

Shanmugaratnam highlighted the existence of a global water cycle, in which almost half the world’s rainfall is carried by atmospheric rivers that largely depend on forest soils, underscoring the importance of cooperation, collaboration and multilateralism.

One of his chief theses was the need to put water pricing on a more sustainable basis. He contested the claim that pricing water would be unfair to the poor, arguing that they should be the main beneficiaries of more efficient use of water.

He pointed to successful innovation in China and Vietnam in reducing water use in rice cultivation using sensors and innovative irrigation practices.

Shanmugaratnam’s lecture can be watched here. Information on past McDougall Memorial Lectures, many given by prominent world leaders and Nobel Laureates, is available here.

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FAO Conference (1-7 July)

Christopher Emsden FAO News and Media (Rome) (+39) 06 570 53291 [email protected]

FAO News and Media (+39) 06 570 53625 [email protected]