FAO Sets For New COVID-19 Response Programme, Food Systems Reform

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Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will be launching a new response programme to address COVID-19 during a high-level event on Tuesday week (July 14) based on seven areas of work identified as priorities.

FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu, is already presenting his vision on how to address future challenges involving food and agriculture, particularly on the need to transform current food systems and make them more sustainable.

 According to him, “food for all is our aspiration. But our thinking and acting needs to go beyond the mere production of food and include food consumption, food quality, food culture and other aspects.” 

Taking into account environmental impacts and being contributors to sustainable development, he adds, “this leads us to the Eco-Economy, where economic value is paired with environmental sustainability.” 

On Monday, the FAO big boss presented to the Council of the UN agency a second set of measures to reform it. These follow those approved by the Council in December 2019, aimed at making FAO more agile, efficient and accountable. 

Qu also outlined the current and future challenges facing food security and agriculture at large, and his vision to respond to them.

“The further adjustments that I am presenting today are guided by the same vision: creating an inclusive and agile FAO that serves its members to achieve the ‘four betters’: better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life by further transparent, open, innovative, responsible and effective reform”, he said.

 The proposed new measures are aimed at improving FAO’s efficiency and effectiveness “while avoiding silos and establishing transparency and accountability at the optimal levels,” added the Director-General, who took office almost one year ago on August 1, 2019.

 A fundamental element is the proposal to implement a modular and more flexible organizational structure, thereby ensuring agility, optimal cross-sectoral collaboration and better responses to emerging needs and priorities. 

This includes grouping at the centre of the Organisation the core leadership team, consisting of the three Deputy Directors-General, the Chief Economist, the Chief Scientist and the Director of Cabinet, who will support the Director-General in all areas of FAO’s mandate.

 The directors of Divisions, Centres and Offices, as experts in their respective subjects, will report directly to members of the core leadership team, in a dual reporting setup, thereby strengthening internal consensus and synergy and minimising bureaucracy.

 Other proposals include the creation of a new Office of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new Division on Food Systems and Food Safety, which would provide strategic leadership in the development of more sustainable food systems, an independent Ombudsperson’s Office, and the strengthening of the Organization’s centres of cooperation.

 These are the Investment Centre that collaborates with the International Financial Institutions; the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre, which reflects the longstanding strategic partnership in sustainable agriculture development and food security using nuclear science and technology; as well as the Joint FAO/WHO Centre that will house the Codex Alimentarius Commission and address issues related to zoonotic diseases.

He also intends to strengthen the capacities of FAO country and regional offices. “Our country offices are the backbone of FAO’s delivery. We will ensure that they receive adequate support and service on the ground. This empowering will be accompanied with a clear push for more tangible deliverables and by a 360-degree evaluation”, he says.

 The new measures will come into effect once approved by the Council, composed of 49 member countries. The Council is the executive organ of the FAO Conference – the organisation’s highest decision-making body which meets every two years.

COVID-19 response

Qu stressed that FAO is at the forefront of addressing the new and emerging global challenges posed by COVID-19 to food and agriculture issues. Since the early days of the outbreak, FAO has been monitoring the global situation.

 “It soon became evident that the combined impacts of COVID-19, its suppression measures and subsequent global recession will increase the number of the hungry and poor, especially in low-income countries that rely on food imports”, he explains.

 To help countries managing the challenges, FAO presented policy solutions calling for actions to ensure the smoothing functioning of food supply chains. 

To date, FAO has published 41 policy briefs and 8 publications, presenting both quantitative and qualitative assessment of the pandemic’s impact on food supply chains, food trade and markets, smallholder producers, food insecurity, protection of the most vulnerable, statistical systems, as well as safe, resilient and sustainable food systems.

FAO is also using big data to monitor trade and collect information on logistical issues, such as real-time vessel movements, daily price information for 14 main food products in all countries.

Likewise, it is actively engaging governments, international organisations, the private sectors and civil society to coordinate and strength responses to the pandemic.

 Since the pandemic started, Qu participated at the G20 leaders meeting, the UN Security Council on food security, and the G20 Agricultural Ministers meeting, calling upon them to produce more and better based on agriculture calendars. 

While he also took part in meetings convened by the UN Secretary-General, ECOSOC and the World Economic Forum, FAO equally organised a number of virtual meetings with ministers from different regions to ensure countries designate food and agriculture as essential services during lockdowns.

 “In collaboration with the African Union, we held a historical virtual meeting with 45 of Africa’s agriculture ministers, with the attendance of the EU Commissioner for Agriculture, and representatives of the Africa Development Bank and the World Bank”, he said.

 The event resulted in a ministerial declaration through which ministers committed to minimising food system disruptions while ensuring measures are in place to contain the spread of the virus. 

A regional task force was created to implement the objectives of the Declaration and provide coordinated support to any new food security “hot spots” resulting from COVID-19.

“The coming months represent our best opportunity to avert predicted large increases in the number of people facing a crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why we are speeding up our rollout of primary data collection and monitoring on the ground so we can pinpoint emerging hotspots and take the most appropriate, cost-effective anticipatory action to avert rising hunger”, Qu says.

 FAO’s response to COVID-19 impact will also include coordinated efforts and actions of multiple stakeholders and partners to address the diverse economic, social, and environmental challenges in the context of the Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

“The Hand-in-Hand initiative offers a ready-made coordination structure linking a diverse array of central and provincial government offices, donors, international financial institutions, the private sector, civil society and research entities – all working under the central direction of the host government”, he underlined.

Other food and agriculture challenges

 While international attention has been focused on COVID-19, FAO has continued to support its members in the battle against another big challenge: Desert Locust. Since the beginning of the year, the desert locust upsurge continues to threaten food security in the Greater Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and parts of southwest Asia, with a risk of it further spreading to the Sahel region.

 Initial estimates suggest that controls conducted in East Africa and Yemen have saved close to 1 million ton of cereal from locust damage, which is enough cereal to feed nearly 7 million people for one year. In addition, 451 000 pastoral households have been spared from livelihood loss and distress through damage averted to rangeland.

 “We need to sustain ongoing operations; scale up to meet emerging needs, and prepare for new desert locust threats, so that the impacts of the pest – combined with COVID-19 impacts – do not have catastrophic consequences for livelihoods and food security”, the FAO boss stressed.

In relation to another trans-boundary challenge, namely Fall Armyworm, Qu mentioned that the Global Action Steering Committee agreed to host a virtual High-Level Conference in September, in order to mobilize the required resources for a coordinate Global Action Plan that FAO had proposed. The event will be co-hosted with the African Development Bank.

While Qu said “FAO will continue to monitor and analyze the impact of COVID-19 and related measures on Fall Armyworm control activities”, he also highlighted the role of digitalisation and modern solutions such as e-commerce as ways of transforming and rationalising food systems, especially to promote access to markets and information, safeguard natural resources and tackle food loss and waste.

The FAO Council meets until Friday, and will consider several issues related to the Programme of Work and Budget for the current biennium 2020-21.

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