Transforming agrifood systems in the march to end hunger


Sunbathing: A farmer drying ears of corn under the sun in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. According to the FAO, 14% of the food the world produces is lost and 17% is wasted. — The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

THIS year’s World Food Day on Oct 16 finds us at a critical moment. The Covid-19 pandemic remains a global challenge, causing untold losses and hardship. The impacts of the climate crisis are all around us. Crops have gone up in flames. Homes have been washed away.

Lives and livelihoods have been thrown into turmoil due to conflict and other humanitarian emergencies. Global food security challenges have not been this severe for years.

Yet in the midst of this all, there is an encouraging new momentum building as we strive to overhaul how food is produced, stored, distributed and consumed. We have started confronting the problems and improving the structures.

Last month’s United Nations Food Systems Summit mapped out the broad outlines of how the world needs to move forward to transform agrifood systems. The closing maxim of the gathering was: “From New York back to Rome”, where the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and sister UN food agencies are based.

A groundbreaking World Food Forum was then successfully convened in Rome early this month, powered by the global youth and focused on harnessing the creativity and resilience of our younger generations. They have the most at stake. They will be the ones living with the direct consequences of the climate crisis and malfunctioning agrifood systems. We have already started to tap the potential of the world’s 1.8 billion young people for widespread awareness, holistic solutions and concrete youth-lead actions for change.

Even before Covid-19 shone a spotlight on the vulnerability of the world’s agrifood systems, hundreds of millions of people worldwide were afflicted by hunger – and that number has increased in the last year up to 811 million. Despite the world producing sufficient food to feed all of us. This is unimaginable and unacceptable.

At the same time, 14% of the food we produce is lost, and 17% is wasted. Combine this with other stressors – pests and diseases, natural disasters, loss of biodiversity and habitat destruction, and conflict – and you can see the magnitude of the challenge we face in meeting the world’s growing food needs, while simultaneously reducing the environmental and climate impact of our agrifood systems.

The FAO, as the leading agency working on food and agriculture, has developed a toolbox which we are confident can enable us to make an impact on many of these complex systemic problems. We have a clear sense of where we are going, framed in the objectives: better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life. The FAO estimates that as much as US$40bil to $50bil (RM166bil to RM207.5bil) in annual investments on targeted interventions are needed to end hunger by 2030. There are plenty of low-cost, high-impact projects that can help hundreds of millions of people better meet their food needs. For instance, targeted interventions on research and development to make farming more technologically advanced, innovation in digital agriculture, and improving literacy rates among women can go a long way towards reducing hunger. But there are also other essential elements such as better data, governance and institutions that need to be added to the equation.

In addition, the FAO’s approach can only be effective if it’s rooted in working together with governments and key partners as they forge their own national pathways towards transformation in line with their specific conditions and needs. We also need to realise that scientists and bureaucrats and even food producers and distributors will never be able to bring about all these desperately needed changes on their own.

The transformation can and must start with pragmatic and concrete action by ordinary consumers and the choices we make. The decisions we make every day about the foods we consume, where we buy them, how they are packaged, how much food we throw away – all these have an impact on our agrifood systems and the future of this planet.

All of us have the potential to be food heroes. Our actions are our future. The process of transforming our agrifood systems – and making an impact on global hunger, healthy diets, environmental damage and waste – starts with you and me.

But it doesn’t end with you and me. The old adage goes: “We are what we eat.” It also holds true that how our children and grandchildren develop will also be influenced by what we eat. Hope is in their hands to carry on. Let us learn together, work together and contribute together. – The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

Qu Dongyu is the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

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