Renewing leadership within the food system

FFA2021 Annual Conference session 1 summary

Tuesday, Apr 06, 2021

The first session of the FFA2021 Annual Conference featured an opening speech from Janez Potočnik, Chair FFA2021 and Chairman RISE Foundation; and an intervention by QU Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). It focused on leadership in the food system, but also touched upon climate resilience, producing healthy food for all at scale; lessons from the pandemic; and set out the role and intentions of the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021.

During the opening speech the former European Commissioner emphasised the necessity of strong global cooperation backed by the best possible scientific advice to meet these challenges. He then stressed he could not think of a more crucial pandemic related lesson for our food system “where we often seem committed to doing the reverse”.

Janez Potočnik raised a point about current climate policies stating, “they ask how to clean up energy production, and how to use cleaner energy – but they do not question whether all the production is in the first place needed and useful.” He went on to say that the “idea of creating an economy that serves people with a function and focuses on the needs; but produces less in quantity, is still taboo in many boardrooms”, highlighting the need for a more circular economy where our crucial natural resources are valued over the demand for production and economic growth.

Before the first speaker connected, the conference organisers shared a letter from UN Secretary-General António Guterres, stressing the urgency to transform food systems but not leave anyone behind in doing so. He welcomed the many contributions as inputs into the upcoming September Food Systems Summit, and said that the EU’s Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy are important parts of the picture.

The letter was followed by a keynote address from Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), who spelled out the scale of global hunger and malnutrition. Over three billion people cannot afford the cheapest healthy diet. The number of hungry people increased by ten million in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to have already added another 132 million.

The Director-General shared China’s own experience in eradicating hunger and starvation, which in 1960 affected 80% of the population. It relied on an enabling policy to support food production and agricultural development; strong political commitment to provide practical help for small farmers; innovation to improve land use; investment for the necessary infrastructure; and training for farmers to use technology and market information.

Qu Dongyu stated that our current consumption patterns and agri-food systems are generating a severe human, economic and environmental cost stating, “we urgently need to do things differently and act holistically.” He went on to say that innovation is necessary; and in clarifying this, noted, “innovation is not only technological innovation. We need policy innovation, behavioural change, and business model change” outlining the need for renewing all aspects of our food system from farm to fork and everything between.

The Director General explained that the FAO uses four “accelerators” to advance its agenda for better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life; where no one is left behind. While QU Dongyu acknowledged that our global agro-food systems have vulnerabilities and weak points, which are failing to provide food for all, he added: “it also provides us the opportunity to re-evaluate how we address the root causes of hunger”, and build a more resilient food system.

The discussion with FFA2021 Moderator, Stephen Sackur, was both insightful and inspirational with the conversation concluding on a serious, yet poetic note: “without the food, without the human” underscoring the importance of nutrition and agro-food systems as a human right and a building block for society.

The Director General left a clear take-away message about transforming our food system: “Let’s be a dreamer and a doer at the same time. Let’s walk the talk.”

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