Some shocking data that challenged the conscience of the world erupted at a Special Seminar on Food and Nutrition, organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on Wednesday in Rome.
The special seminar that was titled, Urgent call for agri-food systems transformation to achieve healthy diets for all, has sparked growing concerns on the need for affordable healthy food for all human beings.
This is coming as FAO, a UN agency ruptured the relative peace of global leaders with the statistics that more than 1.5 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients, and that three billion others cannot even afford the cheapest healthy diet.
Apparently startled, global leaders are now calling for an urgent action to transform agri-food systems to make them more sustainable and resilient in the face of COVID-19 pandemic and other crises, and to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, healthy and nutritious food.
Keynote speakers included FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, and United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development; Queen of the Belgians and SDG Advocate; Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand; Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, African Union (AU) Commissioner; Cecilia Morel, First Lady of Chile; and Maria Juliana Ruiz, First Lady of Colombia.
In his opening remarks, FAO big boss highlighted that solidarity, urgency and action were three crucial elements needed to achieve progress in transforming agri-food systems towards healthier diets.
“The resources – intellectual, financial and material – are not lacking, but unless we are well-organized and coordinated, the probability is that we will be too late and too ineffective for too many people in the Least Developed Countries, the Land-Locked Developing Countries and the Small Island Developing States”, he notes.
QU stresses that actions should be taken not only towards improving production, but also creating conditions for people to consume healthy foods, which requires integrated actions by all stakeholders at local, national, regional, and global levels, and across multiple fronts – not only in agriculture, but also in many other sectors such as trade, health, environment, education and infrastructure.
He singled out three critical drivers: Supporting countries, especially the least developed ones, to strengthen their resilience, first and foremost through increased investment; shifting agricultural policies towards sustainable production of more healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables and fish, as well as aquaculture products, rather than high quantities of staple foods like rice, wheat, and maize; and implementing innovations and digital technologies in agri-food systems to increase agricultural productivity sustainably and integrate smallholders into markets.
QU also highlighted the importance of food loss and waste reduction as the key element “that will allow us to improve food security and nutrition, improve the use of natural resources, and reduce environmental pressures”.
In her address, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands notes that many smallholder farmers were not well connected to value chains and had limited knowledge about options to access financial services, highlighting the great potential of new technologies and innovations in supporting better agricultural finance and nutrition outcomes.
For her part, Queen Mathilde of Belgium stressed that in many rural societies in developing countries women were key players in food production and processing and main agents of family well-being.
However, their rights to land and financial resources remain limited and their nutrition needs are often neglected. She called for greater consideration for women’s work, better mutual respect and better division of labour to correct these injustices.
Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand in her video address reminded the audience that approximately one-third of food produced for human consumption was lost or wasted globally every year, adversely affecting food security, nutrition, well-being, livelihood, global economy, and the environment.
She called for strategies and actions to reduce food loss and waste to be urgently implemented throughout the food value chain at all levels from individual household to community, national and global levels involving farmers, food processors, food services and businesses.
AU Commissioner, Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, says COVID-19 had exposed the fragility of the African food systems in accessing safe and nutritious food at affordable price. At the same time, she noted that COVID-19 also gave us an opportunity to “build back better and greener”.
This, however, requires deploying more scientific innovation, reducing post-harvest loss, investment in research as well as creating opportunities for young people and women in agri-food systems, she added.
The First Lady of Chile, Cecilia Morel, stressed the need to address the problem of overweight and obesity that is leading to increasing levels of non-communicable diseases and an increasing burden on our healthcare systems.
To this end, she underscored the need for public policies promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables with a focus on access of the most vulnerable populations to healthy foods.
In her video address, the First Lady of Colombia, Maria Juliana Ruiz, states that in order to tackle the multiple challenges posed by the pandemic, hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity, we needed urgent action and a solidarity-based approach to transform our agri-food systems that is also aimed at achieving sustainability, which must go hand in hand with fulfilling 2030 Agenda’s commitments.
The event also included three different technical panels of experts.
FAO Chief Economist, Máximo Torero, delivered one of the keynote speeches and stressed that “we need to link recovery plans with catalytic investments and investment with significant returns on reduction of undernourishment to achieve SDG 1 (No Poverty), 2 (Zero Hunger) and 10 (Reduced Inequalities).”
Panellists agreed that the impacts of COVID-19 on agri-food systems have been so damaging because they are not functional, and this needs to be addressed at all levels.
The panellists also highlighted the need to put the problem of healthy diets high on the political agenda and cited a shift of public procurement policies towards healthier products and subsidizing the production of healthy food as possible political incentives.
Another aspect mentioned was raising awareness among consumers about the impacts of unbalanced diets on their health and well-being.
In his closing remarks, the FAO big boss called on participants to move from discussions to implementing policies and taking concrete actions.
QU alluded to the importance of political commitment and reinforced the need of working together by breaking silos and designing strategies more holistically, involving all key stakeholders such as NGOs, civil society, academia and the private sector.
He also mentioned the importance of increasing production, while developing a green economy, providing access to training, education and applied science as well as empowering women and youth as key elements of achieving agri-food systems transformation, highlighting that decisions should be taken based on science and evidence.
The video recording of the Special Seminar on Food and Nutrition is available here.