Near East & North Africa countries discuss responses to COVID-19 & how to transform food systems during FAO Regional Conference
FAO Director-General highlights COVID-19 Response & Recovery Programme & calls for enabling multi-sectoral policies, innovation, well targeted investments, & 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) & 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 & incomes,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.
He noted that the pandemic, & 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 & plagues. “This underscores the need for evidence-based, coordinated policy action & investment to make food systems healthier & more sustainable,” Qu added.
The Chairperson of the Regional Conference, His Excellency Mr. Saoud Bin Hamoud AlHabsi, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries Wealth & Water Resources of the Sultanate of Oman, called for coordinated response to COVID-19 pandemic, as countries have been struggling to ensure agricultural productivity & 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 & farmers in the region & beyond to keep food markets functioning. Continued policy support & investment across the food system are determinant to mitigate future risks & accelerate recovery.
In this context, FAO has elaborated a comprehensive & holistic COVID-19 Response & 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 & livelihoods.
“The FAO COVID-19 Response & Recovery Program is a truly coherent, joined-up corporate response to your needs, linking all parts of the Organization, harnessing our technical, operational, normative & data capacities to support action at global, regional, & 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 & 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 & academia, to identify innovative policy solutions related to this year’s theme “Transforming Food Systems to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.
The Near East & North Africa (NENA) region is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 2 target to eliminate hunger & malnutrition in all its forms by 2030. Hunger is on the rise in the region, driven mainly by conflict & crisis. At the same time, overweight & obesity levels amongst adults & children are spiraling upwards.
The Director-General reinforced that food systems across the region need to change in order to ensure sustainable & healthy diets for a growing, increasingly urban population in a context of water scarcity & advancing climate change, & 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 & help transform the region’s food systems: well-designed multi-sectoral policies that create an enabling environment; innovation of processes & agricultural inputs; well targeted public & private investments; & vital agricultural activity.
The Director-General also stressed FAO’s Hand-in-Hand Initiative as a new business model for collaboration to determine where & how actions can be targeted to reach the most vulnerable & have the greatest impact on poverty & hunger. The Initiative is bolstered by state-of-the-art tools & technologies, such as the Hand in Hand Geospatial Platform & The Data Lab for Statistical Innovation.
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 & effectively address common challenges, including food security & nutrition, water scarcity, climate change & challenges of transboundary pests & diseases, mobilizing support to mitigate the adverse impacts associated with these challenges.
On the second day, the meeting will review the recommendations & 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 & health from 30 countries, as well as Permanent Representatives of governments to FAO, FAO staff & representatives of regional organizations, private sector & academia. The Conference will agree on the final set of recommendations & actions for countries, FAO & other stakeholders.
FAO Members in Near East & North Africa meet every two years to discuss issues of common concern & guide FAO’s work in support to the region’s food & 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.