FAO in North America

Building More Resilient and Sustainable Food Systems for Improved Global Food Security and Nutrition


15 October 2020 - FAO North America in collaboration with the Alliance to End Hunger organized a virtual side event at the 2020 Borlaug Dialogue, following the World Food Prize Laureate award ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa. The discussion, featuring the 2020 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Rattan Lal, focused on the actions needed to promote soil health and more resilient and sustainable food systems. The high-level discussion was moderated by Rob Bertram, Chief Scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.

“In the 75 years since the founding of FAO, the world has made great progress in the fight against poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. Agricultural productivity and agri-food systems have also come a long way, yet we have a long way to go,” said Vimlendra Sharan, Director of FAO North America. “One direction, we really need to take is to build more resilient and sustainable food systems going forward."

There are many complex factors involved in resilient food systems, including some that may be surprising to people who are neither scientists nor farmers. Soil is a primary example, explained keynote speaker Dr. Rattan Lal, 2020 World Food Prize Laureate and Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science and founding Director of the Carbon Management & Sequestration Center at the Ohio State University addressed the impact of the Human-Soil Health-Nexus. 

“Human health - a fingerprint of soil health- can be improved by restoration of soil health of degraded, polluted and contaminated soils,” said Dr. Lal. He elaborated on how restoring organic matter content in soil improves soil health and directly increases the nutritional quality of food grown in healthy soil.

“We do hear quite a lot about weapons of mass destruction, we forget one more important weapon of mass destruction. That's a hungry 2500 people dying per day. That is equal to about 80 jumbo jets crashing every day, day after day after day, and yet it is not a newsworthy item,” Dr. Lal emphasized. “The hungry stomach is no way to achieve peace and stability.”

Dr. Lal underlined the “strong need for a paradigm shift, making agriculture an integral part of the solution and empowering farmers and land managers to produce more and more from less and less. “As we think about Professor Lal’s career, it's important to remember that the United States government has been a really important funder of agricultural research,” said David Beckman, former President of Bread for the World Institute and 2010 World Food Prize Laureate. He stressed the importance of ensuring a COVID-19 relief package that includes international aid.  

COVID-19 has had drastic effects on the food system, but the conversation about building resilience and falling short of the Sustainable Development Goal started before the global pandemic. “We're working under the theme of building resilience in the food system. Food systems’ resilience and addressing the quantity, quality and availability of food for all has always been important. It's been our moniker for 50 years,” said Barbara Stinson, President of the World Food Prize Foundation. “Now we see the world converging on the absolute need to address all the needs of the food system simultaneously,” continued Stinson. “Say affordable, nutritious, equitably accessed, sustainable food systems. It's such a tall demand... We cannot choose and have tradeoffs between these various components. We have to be able to provide all of it.”

According to Máximo Torero, FAO’s Chief Economist, we were already short of meeting the Sustainable Goal 2 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Torero highlighted the need to change resilience in the agriculture sector. “Today, we normally focus on resilience at the household level or the farmer level, we rarely focus on the system. And, that's a very complex issue,” he said. “We need to understand that everything we do will have a tradeoff and a cost associated to it. Our objective function is to achieve Zero Hunger and to provide healthy diets to everyone on earth.”

Nothing shows a lack of equity than more than 3 billion people not being able to afford nutritious food, underlined Lawrence Haddad, CEO of GAIN and 2018 World Food Prize. Three key levers for transforming food systems for healthier diets that he noted are: changing consumer demand; attracting the rights investors; and policy-change to promote equity. Specifically, in policy-change, he noted four key areas including expanding agriculture R&D to focus beyond staple crops and into other nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables; include more nutritious food in public procurement profiles; expanding access to nutritious foods through safety nets and social protection programs; and creating incentives for female entrepreneurs. “This moment that we're in, this terrible moment, also has this dynamic and fluidity and we must take advantage of,” urged Haddad.

The event was closed by Martin Frick, Deputy to the Special Envoy for the UN Food Systems Summit 2021. “The eradication of hunger and living within planetary boundaries is maybe the number one issue for the United Nations. This can only be done with an approach to inclusive multilateralism,” said Frick. He invited participants to look at the Summit as an ongoing engagement process that will go beyond next year. The Summit will have five action tracks: access to safe and nutritious food; changing to sustainable consumption patterns; change to nature positive production; and building sustainable livelihoods and resilience to shocks. National food system dialogues will bring stakeholders to share their voices to contribute towards an inclusive vision.

The discussion showcased a variety of approaches from the biophysical to trade and policy-change to bringing about changes to build more resilient food systems that can withstand economic, health and climate shocks.

Watch the webinar.

Watch the webinar here.