Science key to food system overhaul, UN summit hears

Science and Development Network
  • UN pre-summit on food systems pledges to put science behind ‘transformation’
  • Talks come as UN report reveals stark rise in global hunger
  • Experts call for innovative approaches to tackle disaster and climate risks

By Dann Okoth

Science and innovation must be at the centre of global food system transformation to drive sustainable agricultural productivity and ensure food security and better nutrition for all, a UN meeting has heard.

Speakers at the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit in Rome, Italy, this week also called for more political goodwill towards adopting science-based, pro-poor policies for tackling challenges in the global agri-food sector to avert an imminent global food crisis.

Commenting from the sidelines of the summit on Wednesday, Claudia Sadoff, managing director of research delivery and impact at global research organisation CGIAR, said food systems must not only produce enough to feed a growing population, but also address rising levels of malnutrition with increasingly scarce natural resources.

“Science and innovation can help realise the vision of global food futures that resolve the complex and interconnected challenges we face today.”

Claudia Sadoff, CGIAR

“We must move food systems from a carbon source to a carbon sink, while also providing decent livelihoods for farmers, producers and all actors across the value chain,” Sadoff said. “Science and innovation can help realise the vision of global food futures that resolve the complex and interconnected challenges we face today — including climateconflict and COVID-19.”

She added that “we are already making progress in this direction”, citing the recently launched One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre in Africa. OHRECA brings together science and research spanning human, animal and environmental health to address issues such as food safety, foodborne illnesses and sustainable livestock.

This week’s talks from 26 to 28 July are a precursor to the main UN Food Systems Summit in September — called in 2019 by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with the aim of encouraging action towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and driving collaboration to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food.

While the UN pledged to put science at the centre of any summit outcomes, more than 300 global civil society organisations of small-scale food producers, researchers and indigenous communities boycotted the three-day event, and held an alternative pre-summit in tandem. They say the UN event has been compromised by a “top-down exclusion of many food systems actors”, claims that organisers have strongly denied.

The discussions take place in the backdrop of the UN’s grim State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, published this month, which says that up to 811 million people people globally are undernourished — with rising hunger levels exacerbated by COVID-19, conflicts and climate change.

According to Loretta Hieber Girardet, chief of the risk knowledge, monitoring and capacity development branch at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), there is an urgent need to adopt novel and innovative approaches in tackling disaster risk, especially in the agri-food sector.

Addressing a session on the theme of “climate, food security and COVID-19, challenges and opportunities”, Hieber Girardet said the world was faced with unprecedented uncertainty, complexity and volatility, adding: “It is against this backdrop that the food systems need to be transformed to be agile so that they can be resilient.”

To this end, she said, better management of disasters and climate risk is at the core of achieving food systems transformation towards 2030.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that disastrous events are not confined to one sector, location and community, but can rapidly transform into cross-border disasters with global long-lasting effects on social, ecological and economic systems, Hieber Girardet added.

Agriculture is disproportionately impacted by disasters, with the sector absorbing 23 per cent of all damages from natural disasters, said Girardet, citing UN agency data. This rises to 26 per cent in case of climate change and up to 80 per cent in case of drought.

“There is need for a radical shift in the way we perceive, manage and prevent disasters and climate risk in our food systems,” she added.

“A good place to start would be to implement the Sendai framework, which is the global blueprint for disaster risk management. Unfortunately, we are not on track to meet the goals, just as we’re not on track to implement the Paris agreement or the SDGs.”

Science and innovation were also singled out as the tools to transform the livestock sector, which is often vilified as being unsustainable and a contributor to global warming.

Peter Vadas, national program leader at the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, says more innovative ways to sustainably produce livestock and livestock products were increasingly being deployed.

“Innovation is key in animal agriculture,” he said. “And increasingly, scientific methods are being applied to ensure feeds and pasture are produced more sustainably, and fewer antibiotics and inputs are used.”

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