Bangkok/Thimphu/ On the third day of the FAO Regional Conference for Asia-Pacific, the FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, Government Ministers as well as civil society and private sector representatives voiced concern over COVID-19's impacts on the food security and livelihoods of millions of people and urged for greater action to overcome the food and agriculture challenges facing the region.
They spoke during the Ministerial Session of the virtual conference, which is hosted by Bhutan and aims to define the region priorities for the coming years, as well as to elaborate strategies to fight hunger and malnutrition and advance the transformation of agri-food systems, making them more sustainable, productive and resilient.
"We need to recognize that the food and agriculture sectors, including fisheries, forestry, crops and livestock, and the families that rely on them for their livelihoods, have been badly affected by the spread of the pandemic," said Bhutan's Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji, who delivered the session's keynote address on behalf of his country's Prime Minister.
The FAO Director-General highlighted that small and vulnerable farmers must be at the center of the response.
"Smallholder farmers and their families, food workers in all sectors, and those living in a commodity- and tourism-dependent economies are particularly vulnerable. They urgently need our attention," QU urged.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to more than half of the world's undernourished people, and with the impacts of COVID-19, the number of hungry people in Southern Asia could rise by nearly a third to 330 million in the next ten years.
"While great strides had been made to reduce poverty and hunger by so many countries, COVID-19 has upended the momentum. We must prepare for higher risks ahead of us and make sure that there is sustainability in the food supply chain," said the conference's chairperson Yeshey Penjor, Bhutan's Minister for Agriculture and Forests.
Other high-level speakers noted the importance of acting in two fronts simultaneously: revising public policies and implementing practical measures in the field.
"The novel coronavirus has implications for local, national, regional and global policies and it is important that global and local conditions alike are recognized when confronting this pandemic," said the Independent Chairperson of the FAO Council, Khalid Mehboob.
"The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the vulnerability and weaknesses of already fragile global food systems. We must take urgent action to transform our food systems," stressed Thanawat Tiensin, the Chairperson of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), an international and intergovernmental platform which includes the private sector and civil society and reports to the FAO Conference and the UN General Assembly through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Speaking on behalf of the civil society, Chime P. Wangdi, Secretary-General of the Tarayana Foundation in Bhutan, acknowledged farmers across the region as "food heroes" and "food frontliners".
"There is a silver lining though in this pandemic. The health crisis made ordinary citizens realize again the value of farmers producing local, healthy food, and governments, of becoming more self-reliant in domestic agricultural production; of shorter and inclusive food and value chains," she said.
Sustained and stronger collaboration
The FAO Director-General and many participants also urged for sustained and stronger collaboration, including leveraging agricultural technologies and innovations, to end hunger and tackle COVID-19's impacts
In this respect, the FAO chief presented the organization's recently launched COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme - aimed at mitigating the immediate impacts of the pandemic while building back better - as well as other key initiatives, with a focus on innovation, that can accelerate global hunger-fighting efforts.
These include the establishment of an FAO office of innovation and the creation of an international platform for digital food and agriculture, as well as the Hand-in-Hand Initiative, which is supported by "state-of-the-art tools", namely the Hand-in-Hand Geospatial Platform and the FAO Data Lab for statistical innovation.
"The point of all these initiatives is to get the latest knowledge and tools into the hands of decision-makers but also smallholder farmers, fishers, herders and foresters. This is the region where a vast majority of smallholders are producing the food and agricultural products that we rely upon," said QU.
"We need to take full advantage of the digital age through innovative partnerships with national governments, farmers, the private sector, academia, NGOs and many others," he urged. Several participants, including Bhutan's Foreign Minister, conveyed interest in and support for the organization's current key initiatives such as Hand-in-Hand. Others acknowledged the important role innovation and technologies could play in improving food production and security. The FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific will continue until tomorrow 4 September. All sessions of the conference can be followed live via Webcast. The Timetable can be found here and the Annotated Agenda is here.