Hand in hand toward a sustainable food future
Five years ago, world leaders agreed on the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, with the aim of eradicating persistent global challenges such as hunger and poverty, and achieving a sustainable future for all.
So far, however, these goals are far from being reached.
In a handful of countries in the Near East and North Africa (NENA), protracted crises are hamstringing efforts to eradicate hunger by 2030. Nearly 55 million people in the region are hungry and the situation is particularly worrisome in countries afflicted by conflicts and violence: Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Persistent poverty and inequality are also concerns. Poverty is primarily a rural issue in the NENA region, with rural poverty rates reaching 80 percent in some countries. The root causes of this are well known: Crises and civil unrest; poor agricultural productivity; limited access to infrastructure, health and education; lack of collective services; and, above all, poor public and private investment.
On top of that, the region is under increasing pressure to cope with a rapidly expanding population, the adverse effects of climate change, extreme water scarcity and the degradation of natural resources.
The emergence of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has put additional pressure on food systems. As a result of the pandemic and related containment measures, food-supply chains in the region are being disrupted, harvests have been lost or delayed, jobs are disappearing and livelihoods are heavily affected.
To support countries and farmers in their efforts to address persistent challenges related to food and agriculture, and build back better after the pandemic, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has actively promoted scalable and sustainable solutions.
This forms the basis of the comprehensive FAO COVID-19 Response and Recovery Program, which aims to mitigate the immediate effects of the pandemic while also strengthening the long-term resilience of food systems and livelihoods.
Supporting the most vulnerable people is among its top priorities. It aims to do this by promoting economic inclusion and social protection, and boosting smallholder resilience.
Leveraging innovation and technologies is also fundamental to leading countries through the challenges presented by COVID-19. Approaches and techniques that are particularly promising for the NENA region include precision agriculture, hydroponics, desert agriculture and precision harvesting.
Digitalization and communication technologies, in turn, have the potential to reduce costs, provide access to markets, improve services, create new job opportunities and help save resources.
Yet there are barriers to the use of some technologies in the Near East and North Africa. The rural-urban digital divide remains very wide, for example, and network coverage in rural areas remains limited. Digital literacy is another barrier. There is, therefore, an urgent need for investment and capacity development on that front.
We have to ensure that innovation and digital transformation in agriculture is working for everyone, especially smallholder farmers, women and young people. For that to happen, we must forge strong partnerships between governments, development partners, the private sector, civil society and academia.
Countries can, and should, work together more and support each other, combining their resources, knowledge and skills to benefit farmers. This is the main objective of the FAO’s Hand-in-Hand initiative. It acts as a “matchmaker,” introducing countries with the highest poverty and hunger rates to donor countries and financial partners that can support development efforts.
Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring food security require investments, socio-economic inclusion, social protection, smallholder resilience and innovation.
Hand-in-Hand focuses on the potential of agricultural transformation and sustainable rural development. It is country-owned and supported by concrete, evidence-based policies. It is reinforced by state-of-the-art tools such as the Hand-in-Hand geospatial platform and the FAO Data Lab, for statistical innovation.
The FAO Regional Conference for the Near East, which will be virtually hosted by Oman on Sept. 21-22, offers the perfect opportunity for members and partners to find ways to expedite action, agree on regional priorities, foster greater regional solidarity and leverage resources.
Having just entered the UN Decade of Action, we have 10 precious years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The FAO is committed and ready to continue working with members and partners to achieve the four betters: better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life for a better world.
- Qu Dongyu is director-general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).