15 June 2021, Rome – Innovation is needed across the entire spectrum of value chains in the world’s agri-food systems in order to respond to the two big challenges of climate change and hunger, QU Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) said at a high level round table.
“We have to produce more with less – more quantity, more quality and more diversity. We need to move from biodiversity to food diversity,” the Director-General said at the event, held at the end of the first day of the 42nd Session of the FAO Conference on Monday.
“We want to build a real sustainable system from the producer to the consumer -where Zero Waste has to be the New Norm,” he said.
The round table followed Bill Gates’ delivery of this Session’s McDougall Memorial Lecture, in which he emphasized the importance of technology and data in bolstering food security and dealing with climate change.
Speaking first after Gates and Qu was David Hazlehurst, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment of Australia – the home country of Frank Lidgett McDougall.
Also speaking at the event were Jewel Bronaugh, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture of the United States of America, who delivered remarks on behalf of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack; Thoko Didiza, Minister for Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development of the Republic of South Africa; Víctor Manuel Villalobos Arámbula, Secretary for Agriculture and Rural Development of Mexico; William D. Dar, Secretary for Agriculture of the Republic of the Philippines; Saud bin Hamoud bin Ahmed Al-Habsi, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries Wealth and Water Resources of the Sultanate of Oman; and Stefano Patuanelli, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policies of Italy.
Collaboration fosters innovation
The high-level panelists agreed on the importance of harnessing innovation, technology and data in a way to benefit the entire food system, helping both farmers and consumers in terms of hunger, nutrition and natural resource utilization.
“Out of the challenges we face come clear opportunities, as new technologies and innovation can improve the productivity, profitability and resilience of our agricultural systems,” said Hazlehurst of Australia.
“Never in the history of human civilization have we accumulated so much knowledge,” said Villalobos of Mexico. Emphasizing the need to support rural smallholders, he added, “we have to feed those who feed us.”
“There is an urgent need for ground-breaking solutions,” said Didiza of South Africa. She pointed to precision agriculture, vertical farming, drone technology and the prospects of using indigenous livestock breeds to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as areas of promise.
“We are in a moment of history where technology is changing things,” said Dar of the Philippines. “This is the new normal. The benefits of science-driven advances should find a place in our farms as well as our homes.”
“We need policies, technology, and innovative approaches to be able to foster the necessary development,” said Al-Habsi of Oman.
Many also emphasized the role of innovation, technology and data to tackle climate change.
The climate crisis is “existential”, said Bronaugh, explaining that the U.S. government is committed to helping small farmers, at home and abroad, have equal access to modern tools available for agriculture today.
“The fight against climate change and poverty represents the big and ambitious challenge of our time,” said Patuanelli of Italy, who highlighted the need for alliances spanning from consumers to producers.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the value of real-time information,” said FAO Chief Economist Máximo Torero Cullen, who moderated the round table.
“Smallholder farmers are accustomed to overcoming incredible adversity and are constantly innovating based on changing weather and market demands,” Gates said in his lecture. “But they can’t solve this alone.”
Emphasizing the importance of international collaboration, Director-General Qu noted that sustainable agriculture is geared around food, feed, fuel, fiber, and also friends. “FAO wants to be the platform for all Members to share experiences and best practices,” he said.
In October 1958 the Council of FAO decided to honor the memory of Frank L. McDougall of Australia, one of the founding fathers and a faithful servant of the Organization, by establishing the McDougall Memorial Lecture. This lecture is delivered at the beginning of each session of the FAO Conference, which meets every two years.