Transforming the agri-food system to solve the world’s most important challenges

Corinna Hawkes, Director of FAO's Food Systems and Food Security Division.

Population growth, urbanization, changing consumption patterns and climate change are making it harder to feed the world, according to a senior official at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Corinna Hawkes, Director of FAO’s Food Systems and Food Safety Division, says a holistic and sustainable approach is needed, taking into account economic, social and environmental factors, and bringing people together to ensure nutritious food and sustainable livelihoods for all.

On the eve of the UN Summit on Food Systems+2, in which the global agri-food systems will be discussed, our colleagues from FAO have interviewed her to get her impressions on the current situation.

What is the agri-food system?

The agri-food system is everything related to food and agriculture. Both what we eat and the way in which food is sold, distributed and processed. It also includes how food is grown or harvested on land, at sea, and other non-food products such as fuel and fiber.

All these processes involve a whole series of activities, investments and decisions.explains Hawkes.

The agri-food system brings all this together in an interconnected system; For example, if we want to grow fruits and vegetables so that people eat healthier, we have to think not only about growing the vegetables, but also how they are delivered to people.

The agri-food system is also a space for solutions such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity, malnutrition, chronic diseases, unsafe food, poverty and to counteract the lack of urban sustainability… the solution to the world’s most important challenges.

© FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto

Corinna Hawkes, Director of FAO’s Food Systems and Food Security Division.

Why does the world need to transform the agri-food system?

Right now, there is no power to provide those solutions. The agri-food system is sick. The way it is designed and works means it is weak, worn and lacking in resilience.

So the frustration and challenge here is that the potential power of the agri-food system to provide these solutions is lost until we transform it to make it stronger.

One of the main challenges is that the way food is grown and produced is contributing to climate change, which in turn weakens the agri-food system.

What is the example of a great current challenge of the agri-food system?

One of the things we’ve done is take diversity out of the system, which includes everything from what’s on our plates to the farm. We have to recover that diversity.

In recent decades there has been a specialization in the production of certain staple crops. It was a great idea from the point of view of productivity and efficiency: it makes food cheaper, allows you to trade it and reduces the cost of production. It is important that we grow these crops efficiently.

But we have seen that reducing the diversity too much reduces the resistance of the system. And we have seen with recent conflicts how reliance on certain key producers further weakens resilience.

Diversity is also good for biodiversity and the environment, as well as nutritionally for consumers.

How to overcome these challenges?

There are many ways to transform the agri-food system. The most important is to unite it, for which it is necessary to unite people.

One of the main challenges is that each one tries to solve biodiversity, nutrition or food security, while others try to solve poverty and the livelihoods of agricultural producers.

We have to work together to find a way to provide these solutions.. Thus we will begin to see that the agri-food system may seem like a problem because it is weak, but in reality it is something really powerful.

A Ghanaian fisherman collects the morning's catch.

© IMF/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

A Ghanaian fisherman collects the morning’s catch.

What good practices are being developed right now?

I am excited about some of the initiatives that are taking place at the sub-national, urban and municipal levels. There is a lot of energy in cities big and small where local authorities and multiple stakeholders are really taking action.

They are improving the infrastructure of the markets so that people have more access to food, so that food is safe and losses and waste are reduced.

So we’re starting to see these important connections being made, and this is happening in hundreds of cities around the world.

What can we expect from the upcoming Food Systems Summit +2?

What I expect from the stocktaking meeting two years after the UN Food Systems Summit is that governments and many other stakeholders come together to honestly discuss the challenges and share their successes and challenges in making change.

I would like to see a feeling of solidarity between governments and other interested parties, who agree that together they will do better if they share experiences and good practices to overcome the challenges.

The ideal outcome of the summit is that the momentum created continues and that the commitment to change does not remain a mere commitment, but translates into action on the ground to actually achieve change.

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Written by Editor TLN

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