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Fostering innovation in agrifood systems

Feb 06,2022 - Last updated at Feb 06,2022

The future of food seems more and more uncertain in the Near East and North Africa (NENA region), as it faces growing food insecurity and malnutrition. We can and must act now to address the root causes of this situation and transform the structures governing how what we eat is produced, distributed and consumed.

As things stand now, protracted crises driven by conflict and other humanitarian crisis, as well as a rapidly growing population, are leading to increasing dependence on food imports. These often overlapping risks are also combining with economic shocks to undermine livelihoods and push millions into high acute food insecurity. Poverty, widespread inequalities and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating the situation.

Most importantly, the region faces increasing pressure from the impacts of the climate crisis, extreme water scarcity and the degradation of natural resources, which further aggravate the severity and impact of shocks and erode resilience. 

The NENA region has a long way to go to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 — targeting Zero Hunger by 2030.  In 2020, 59.3 million people were undernourished in the region alone, which corresponds to 14.2 per cent of the region’s total population.

Around 165 million of the region’s inhabitants live in rural areas, where the majority of the poor have to put up with inadequate basic services, low opportunities for innovation, limited access to productive infrastructure, services and value chains, and a lack of available jobs.

Increased migration to the region’s cities has been fuelling the ever-growing number of urban poor. Many are young people, who often do not find the opportunities they are seeking.

The NENA region has to cope with structural challenges that make feeding a growing population particularly difficult. The result is that our agrifood systems are failing to support healthy diets. The food provides calories, but insufficient nutrition leading to the triple burden of malnutrition: Stunting, obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. 

We urgently need to transform our agrifood systems to make them more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable. The warning coming from science is unequivocal: Simply scaling up is not going to be enough. We need structural change and we need to ensure it happens fast. 

The first priority is to bring everyone to the table. Policymakers need to find solutions that can help reshape the future of the agrifood sector in the Near East and North Africa region. This requires broad partnerships with all stakeholders, including the private sector, academia and civil society, to implement them.

We are now just eight planting seasons away from the 2030 timeline for achieving the Agenda for Sustainable Development. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been advocating the importance of a comprehensive and coherent strategy to achieve these 17 goals, with agrifood systems at the centre. Problems and solutions are inseparable. Our natural resources will only be preserved for future generations if we succeed in alleviating poverty and hunger by promoting sustainable agrifood systems and strengthening the resilience of rural communities. We must rethink our agrifood systems to reshape our future. 

There is a range of short, medium, and long-term actions we can take right now to build sustainable, inclusive and healthy agrifood systems. We must harness the potential of technologies and innovation across agrifood value chains to support rural transformation. There must be incentives, standards and norms to drive changes in patterns of consumption, reducing food losses and waste, scaling up land restoration and reforestation. It is important to set limits for agriculture water withdrawals, while increasing water productivity.

We will not reach our shared goal of zero hunger if the vulnerable are left behind. In countries experiencing complex emergencies, which are often also among the largest food crises in the world, stepping up investment in agriculture as a frontline humanitarian response not only saves lives and protects livelihoods in the short term, but can lay the foundations for future recovery and resilience building. Development efforts must combine with these efforts, engaging with peace and climate actors to secure sustainable transformation of agrifood systems. 

FAO has decades of experience working on both humanitarian and development programmes. Through its focus on responses that strengthen resilience, FAO is simultaneously addressing the multiple risks and vulnerabilities facing populations, meeting immediate humanitarian needs and enabling them to be better prepared and more able to cope in the face of the next shock or stress. 

Greater solidarity and cooperation among countries and regions are also key drivers for eradicating hunger, ending food insecurity and ensuring sustainability. We need to work together efficiently, effectively and in a coherent manner. Peace is an overarching requirement for many of these win-win solutions.

The FAO of the United Nations will continue to support countries' efforts to collaborate closely with international organisations, academia, the private sector, civil society, international financial institutions and all relevant stakeholderthrough a number of initiatives such as the Hand in Hand Initiative. The FAO is committed to continue supporting members in the region design and implement the policies they need for inclusive productivity growth and food security for all.

The 36th Session of the FAO Regional Conference for the Near East (#NERC36), starting this week, will provide an opportunity for the Ministers forAgriculture from the region to meet in Baghdad on 7 and 8 of February to discuss challenges and priorities, and commit to take ownership and actions on transforming agrifood systems for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Regional Conference is an important path towards the implementation of the FAO Strategic Framework 2022-2031 to ensure Better Production, Better Nutrition, a Better Environment and a Better Life for all, leaving no-one behind.

The writer is director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations 

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