By Zoltán Kálmán
Zoltán Kálmán is Permanent Representative of Hungary to the Rome-based UN agencies (FAO, IFAD, WFP). He was President of the WFP Executive Board in 2018.
ROME, May 26 2020 (IPS) - Hunger and food insecurity continue to rise. The official 2019 statistics refer to 821 million people suffering from hunger all over the world. According the recently launched Global Report on Food Crises, there are further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse. WFP estimates that due to the impacts of COVID19, additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. This means a total increase of 265 million people. If there will be no appropriate and urgent actions, "we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months", said David Beasley, WFP Executive Director, addressing the UN Security Council on 21st April.
The most important drivers are conflicts, weather extremes and economic shocks, and all linked directly to extreme poverty and inequalities. This alarming situation is aggravated by and strongly interlinked with unsustainable practices in agriculture. Land use/cover change, environmental pollution, climate change are important drivers of biodiversity loss and soil degradation. Food losses and waste, diet-related health impacts are further undesired consequences of unsustainable food systems.
Transition to more sustainable food systems could be an adequate response to these challenges. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals including the zero hunger target is still possible but it would require urgent and coordinated efforts. There is a growing consensus that transition to more sustainable food systems is indispensable and requires innovations.
Transition should start with the sustainability assessment of current food systems, including the economic dimension of sustainability. In this regard, we should bear in mind that economic viability is largely determined by policy incentives. Governments worldwide spend around USD 700 billion (OECD Economic Outlook 2019) every year on farm support, contributing to the profitability of the food systems and the farming methods applied. As a result, in many countries of the world, unsustainable, input intensive industrial, monoculture farming has become profitable. However, science can demonstrate that with a levelled playing field, sustainable approaches and practices would be economically viable and competitive alternatives. This becomes even more obvious if we apply the "true cost accounting" principle and internalise all positive and negative environmental and social externalities. To reverse the negative trends and to make food production more sustainable, appropriate and evidence-based policy incentives are required to promote and favour sustainable and innovative solutions.
In agriculture "innovation is an imperative" but it should not be considered as an objective itself. Innovation should rather serve as means to reach our shared goals: to eliminate poverty and hunger and respond to the challenges listed above. Therefore, we should ensure that innovations are available, accessible and affordable also in the most remote areas, and for the poorest of the poor. In the least developed countries priority should be given to those innovations that are focusing on the basic needs. In any way, innovations should be inclusive and follow the participatory approach. National priorities should be respected and development proposals should be elaborated together with local communities, to improve their livelihood, including through alternative farm- and non-farm employment opportunities (in food processing, services, etc.). Sustainable innovative approaches, such as agroecology, are inclusive, rely on traditional knowledge and apply the most advanced, objective science and most up-to-date innovations and technologies. The Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) is an evidence of the feasibility and usefulness of combining traditional knowledge and innovation. Artificial intelligence (AI), digitalisation, precision agriculture, drones, satellites, smart phones and many other innovations could be supportive of agroecology and have a role in optimizing food chains, managing water resources, fighting pests and diseases, tackling desert locust upsurge, monitoring forests, increasing preparedness of farmers when disasters strike, etc. Regarding artificial intelligence, it is appreciated that FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu has recently taken an important step by signing the Rome Call for AI Ethics, emphasizing the need to "minimize the new technology's risks while exploiting its potential benefits".
Innovations, according to past and present prevailing practice, have been focusing on how to produce more, how to get higher yields, how to increase productivity, etc. These are all important, but we need to bear in mind that we already produce enough food for the whole world. More than one third of the food produced is lost or wasted, provoking unnecessary (and avoidable) environmental impacts of food production.
Departing from the past, innovations should focus on the real problems and offer solutions to current challenges of preserving biodiversity, restoring soil fertility, reduce pollution, modernise rural infrastructure and reduce the digital divide, preserve and create rural jobs, improve education, reduce food losses and waste, etc. All having essential role in achieving the basic objectives: eliminate poverty and hunger.
Innovations, including biotechnological methods, should be sustainable. Great majority of broadly accepted and applied biotechnological methods (fermentation, cheese making, etc.) are considered appropriate from sustainability point of view, while others (such as genetic modification -- GM) are contentious. In addition to the human health concerns related to the GM crops, the undesired impacts of monoculture cropping on soils and on biodiversity and the seed- and other input supply dependency for farmers, particularly smallholder family farmers, justify following the precautionary principle. In this regard, independent and neutral scientific research should help all countries and all farmers to understand the potential risks and benefits of GM crops. There is no "one size fits all" solution, therefore, farmers should be in a position to take a free and informed decision and choose to produce them or not. While providing policy advice to countries, FAO, as a knowledge-based UN technical agency should continue to follow this approach and neither promote nor speak against producing GM crops. To maintain its credibility and independence, FAO should continue to generate and disseminate neutral scientific evidence on this complex and contentious issue.
Sustainable innovations, such as agroecology, could contribute to economic viability, provide appropriate solutions to many of the environmental challenges and are socially inclusive, addressing rural employment and livelihood. This is particularly relevant in Africa, where in some countries 60-80% of the population live in rural areas and their livelihood is based on agriculture.
It is important to note, however, that developed countries would also need to transform their food systems, making them more sustainable, applying sustainable innovations. In this regard, it is remarkable that the European Commission has proposed the innovative Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system and the EU Biodiversity Strategy to bring nature back into our lives, preserving and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity. The two strategies are at the heart of the European Green Deal and are "mutually reinforcing, bringing together nature, farmers, business and consumers for jointly working towards a competitively sustainable future".