Near East and North Africa countries discuss responses to COVID-19 and how to transform food systems during FAO Regional Conference

FAO Director-General highlights COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme and calls for enabling multi-sectoral policies, innovation, well targeted investments, and vital agricultural activity

21 September 2020, Muscat/Rome -- The 35th FAO Regional Conference for the Near East started today with the topics of transforming food systems to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and responding to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic at the centre of the discussions.

The COVID-19 pandemic "is primarily a health crisis, but its impact has touched all parts of our lives, most importantly food security and incomes," said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

He noted that the pandemic, and measures to contain it, pose significant challenges especially to the most vulnerable communities, as a compounding threat to existing crises such as conflict, natural disasters, climate change, pests and plagues. "This underscores the need for evidence-based, coordinated policy action and investment to make food systems healthier and more sustainable," Qu added.

The Chairperson of the Regional Conference, His Excellency Mr. Saoud Bin Hamoud AlHabsi, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries Wealth and Water Resources of the Sultanate of Oman, called for coordinated response to COVID-19 pandemic, as countries have been struggling to ensure agricultural productivity and food accessibility. He also mentioned that some countries have been affected by desert locust infestations.

The region's heavy dependence on food imports generated early concerns as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Food availability risks have been minimized through quick actions by governments and farmers in the region and beyond to keep food markets functioning. Continued policy support and investment across the food system are determinant to mitigate future risks and accelerate recovery.

In this context, FAO has elaborated a comprehensive and holistic COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme, which spans seven key priority areas where action is urgently needed. It aims to mitigate the immediate impacts of the pandemic while strengthening the future resilience of food systems and livelihoods.

"The FAO COVID-19 Response and Recovery Program is a truly coherent, joined-up corporate response to your needs, linking all parts of the Organization, harnessing our technical, operational, normative and data capacities to support action at global, regional, and country levels," the Director-General said.

The agenda of the conference includes a Ministerial Roundtable in order to promote a high-level policy dialogue focusing on concrete actions to transform food systems to achieve the SDGs and respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transforming food systems

The two-day conference, held virtually by the Sultanate of Oman, gathers 30 FAO Members as well as representatives from partner organizations, civil society, the private sector and academia, to identify innovative policy solutions related to this year's theme "Transforming Food Systems to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals".

The Near East and North Africa (NENA) region is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 2 target to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030. Hunger is on the rise in the region, driven mainly by conflict and crisis. At the same time, overweight and obesity levels amongst adults and children are spiraling upwards.

The Director-General reinforced that food systems across the region need to change in order to ensure sustainable and healthy diets for a growing, increasingly urban population in a context of water scarcity and advancing climate change, and announced that the first Chief Scientist in FAO's history will be from the NENA region: Ms Ismahane Elouafi, from Morocco.

Qu indicated four important elements to kick start rural transformation, fuel economic growth and help transform the region's food systems: well-designed multi-sectoral policies that create an enabling environment; innovation of processes and agricultural inputs; well-targeted public and private investments; and vital agricultural activity.

The Director-General also stressed FAO's Hand-in-Hand Initiative as a new business model for collaboration to determine where and how actions can be targeted to reach the most vulnerable and have the greatest impact on poverty and hunger. The Initiative is bolstered by state-of-the-art tools and technologies, such as the Hand in Hand Geospatial Platform and The Data Lab for Statistical Innovation.

Regional Conference

At the end of the first day of the Conference, Members are expected to approve a Ministerial Declaration confirming their commitment to further strengthen regional collaboration and effectively address common challenges, including food security and nutrition, water scarcity, climate change and challenges of transboundary pests and diseases, mobilizing support to mitigate the adverse impacts associated with these challenges.

On the second day, the meeting will review the recommendations and conclusions of the Regional Consultative Technical Meetings, a series of preparatory technical sessions that took place earlier this year, gathering senior officers from the ministries of agriculture, water, environment and health from 30 countries, as well as Permanent Representatives of governments to FAO, FAO staff and representatives of regional organizations, private sector and academia. The Conference will agree on the final set of recommendations and actions for countries, FAO and other stakeholders.

FAO Members in Near East and North Africa meet every two years to discuss issues of common concern and guide FAO's work in support to the region's food and agriculture. This year's Regional Conference will further strengthen FAO's impact across the region, as well as defining its work priorities in the coming two years.

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NERC 35 conference website

Provisional timetable

Event webcast

Photos: FAOnews Flickr account

Twitter: #NERC35, @FAOinNENA_EN and @FAOinNENA


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