Addressing worldwide food crises and building resilience
A conversation with Dominique Burgeon, Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Geneva
1 May 2022

You have a long experience addressing ‘food crises’ in the field. Can you tell us more about your work and how crucial it is to address those crises?

I have worked on food crisis contexts for over 25 years. The more I work in this field, the more I realise how much each crisis is different and why success in one country does not necessarily mean success in another.

2020 saw a significant surge in the number of people around the world who are afflicted by high acute food insecurity. This rose further in 2021, reaching 161 million people by September (according to the 2021 Global Report on Food Crises Update). A toxic combination of conflict, economic shocks exacerbated by the knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate disruptions are pushing more and more people to the brink; and what is particularly concerning is the depth of this acute hunger. We are seeing a staggering number of people right on the brink of starvation – over 45 million are currently one step away from famine in Emergency conditions (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC)/Cadre Harmonisé (CH) Phase 4).

Alongside this steady upward trend in acute food insecurity, there has been a continued increase in levels of humanitarian assistance to food sectors in food crisis countries. Although, it must be noted that the share of this going to agriculture has fallen significantly in the past few years. With at least two-thirds of those experiencing acute hunger relying on agriculture for their survival, the question has to be whether we can really tackle acute food insecurity while neglecting emergency agriculture livelihood assistance within the humanitarian response. It is when we combine food, cash and livelihood assistance that we can have the greatest impact, especially acknowledging the importance of appropriate action aligned with the season.

In 2017, I was in South Sudan and saw first-hand the reality of famine, speaking to people who were trapped in the swamps by fighting and were surviving on water lilies and whatever they could find. It was truly heart-breaking but also gratifying to see how quickly agricultural assistance can be game-changing. At the time, FAO airdrops of fishing kits and vegetable seeds had started and were enabling people hiding in the remote swamps to catch fish, quickly grow produce, and stay alive. In Afghanistan, FAO veterinary care, animal feed, and cash transfers are providing a lifeline to vulnerable pastoralists caught between insecurity and climate extremes. In northern Nigeria, FAO seed kits matched to the growing seasons together with fertilizers have helped families grow food all year long. Along with provision of new animals, animal feed, and chicken farm “starter kits” – this support has helped people coping with violence for years keep famine at bay. These are only some examples demonstrating that food production is possible even in extremely difficult crisis contexts.

However, while humanitarian response and the funds provide are absolutely critical to save lives, it is not enough to prevent this steady accumulation of people in acute food insecurity and pull them permanently back from the brink. In other words, responding only to immediate humanitarian needs is critical but not sufficient for the system to achieve SDG2: ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition. We need to tackle both the immediate and long-term needs jointly from the onset of a crisis to achieve durable and sustainable solutions, and increase the resilience of the most vulnerable. FAO has been working across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus for decades – long before we had put a name on the nexus.

Emergencies and crises are one challenge for FAO. But food security also requires the rethinking of food systems so far used by countries for food production and consumption. Can you explain to us what is ahead?

Still about 800 million people go hungry worldwide, according to the most recent State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World which monitors chronic food security and the prevalence of undernourishment. At the same time, around 14 percent of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17 percent of total global food production is wasted. This means that over 30 percent of the food produced never makes it onto a plate. Yet, often, unsustainable, unfair and risk-blind agriculture and food policies and practices contribute to climate change, deforestation and biodiversity loss, land degradation and desertification, pollution and inequalities with growing food insecurity and malnutrition. This is heavily affecting the groups already in vulnerable situations like small-scale food producers, marginalized groups and indigenous peoples.

While agriculture, with its soils and forests, can act as a unique carbon sink, agri-food systems account for roughly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Agri-food systems need to transform from being part of the problem, to become part of the solution. This was a key challenge highlighted by the UN Secretary-General when he called for the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September 2021.

There is increasing momentum in international climate change policy discussions for a renewed emphasis on climate change adaptation, recognizing that climate change is already impacting all regions of the world, thus the need to build resilience now and for the future. This momentum for climate change adaptation will be highlighted in UNFCCC COP-27 in 2022 in Egypt, as embodied in the Glasgow-Sharm el-Sheikh work programme which emphasizes the role of agriculture and food systems as a main climate solution.

As was the case of the UNFSS, the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are fast approaching. We have to change our agri-food systems urgently and holistically. This transformation requires a systemic approach and our collective action – hand in hand by producers, distributors and consumers, together with governments, private sector, academia and civil society. It is the time to turn momentum into action and work together to follow through on transformative pathways based on national priorities and conditions.

Transforming our global agri-food systems depends ultimately on actions at the country and local levels. One only needs to look at the variety of cuisines around the world to understand how diverse agri-food systems are. Over half of the population of the globe earns their livelihoods directly through the agri-food production chain, supply chain and value chain. And we are all consumers of food, which means each and every one of us can and should be a game-changer of agri-food systems.

What does it take to transform?

FAO has been organising and better preparing itself for the past two years to best support the process. Our new Strategic Framework 2022-2031 endorsed by Members seeks to support the 2030 Agenda through the transformation to more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable agri-food systems for better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life, leaving no one behind.

Twenty Programme Priority Areas guide the programmes that FAO will implement under the four betters in order to fill critical gaps and contribute to the achievement of the selected SDG targets. Programme Priority Areas are formulated as inter-disciplinary, issue-based technical themes, representing FAO’s strategic contribution to specific SDG targets and indicators.

FAO also applies four cross-cutting/cross-sectional “accelerators” – technology, innovation, data and complements (governance, human capital, and institutions) in all its programmatic interventions to accelerate progress and maximize efforts in meeting the SDGs and to realize its aspirations – its four betters.

You have touched upon different aspects of food security. Resilience is gaining further momentum. Could you explain the concept and provide examples?

We live in a world where crises and disasters are becoming more and more interconnected. COVID-19, climate, biodiversity loss and pollution are colliding with conflicts and other disasters and crises, driving a dangerous rise in acute food insecurity and malnutrition, especially in least developed countries.

Resilience is essentially about the ability of all actors and parts of systems that are confronted by risks and impacts from disasters or crises to prevent, anticipate, absorb or withstand damage, recover and adapt, and transform ahead of future catastrophic events. Absorptive capacity is critical in confronting unforeseen shocks and is complementary to risk management of shocks that can be anticipated. Key to building the absorptive capacity of agri-food systems is diversity in food sources (domestic production, imports or existing stocks), diversity of actors in food supply  chains, redundant and robust transport networks, and affordability of a healthy diet for all households, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.

FAO thus seeks to develop the capacities of households, communities and institutions to manage risk and impacts from multiple hazards. Such capacities help to protect people and their livelihoods, against adverse effects of disasters, crises and conflicts. Many risk-management measures or solutions are already available, such as early warning, anticipatory action, anticipatory financing, emergency preparedness and response, social protection to name only a few. We, humanitarian, climate, development and peace actors, need to ensure that these solutions are combined, joined up, integrated, and are as risk-specific and as people-centred as possible. In this context, successful resilience building involves working together across entire systems, from production to consumption, on political will, strategic partnerships and coordination, significant risk-informed investment, capacity development and knowledge management for normative and field action.

A growing number of studies show that benefits of disaster risk reduction and management interventions outweigh their cost by 2 to 5 times, and much more in certain cases. From Sudan to Mongolia, through the implementation of anticipatory actions, for every USD 1 invested, families can gain USD 7 in benefits and avoided losses. Not only can anticipatory actions support resilience efforts, they curb malnutrition, protect food security and provide a more dignified humanitarian response.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of a joint programme between FAO and the World Food Programme (WFP), FAO implemented the Dimitra Clubs, a gender-transformative approach aimed at improving rural livelihoods and gender equality through collective action and self-help. Impacts included improved agricultural practices, the creation of collective fields and vegetable gardens, the rehabilitation and recovery of community social infrastructure destroyed by the conflict, in addition to changes in gender roles, reduced violence and localized conflict, and increased social cohesion.

Another example of food resilience lies in the “Caisses de Résilience” (CdR), an innovative community-centred approach which brings together three dimensions: a productive/technical dimension (i.e. sustainable agricultural practices), an economic/ financial dimension (i.e. access to credit) and a social dimension (i.e. strengthening social cohesion through farmers’ groups and women’s associations). The approach is innovative because the support involves these three simultaneous and complementary dimensions, thereby producing a broader range of opportunities for the beneficiaries as well as strengthening their preparedness and capacities to deal with risks and crises. Implemented in a variety of countries such as Central African Republic, Chad, Liberia, Malawi, Mali and Uganda in Africa and in Guatemala and Honduras in Central America, CdR aims to assist food-insecure smallholder farmers and pastoralists, particularly vulnerable to disasters and crises by increasing and diversifying key assets and knowledge for a better resilience of their livelihoods.

In a nutshell, resilience capacities of low-income households, in particular small-scale producers whose livelihoods are increasingly threatened by climate shocks and depletion of natural resources, can be significantly strengthened through education, risk-management training, non-farm employment and cash transfers. Ensuring economic access to sufficient food for a healthy diet at all times is a key dimension of agri-food systems’ resilience. Policies and investments that reduce poverty, generate decent employment and expand access to education and basic services, as well as social protection programmes when needed, are essential building blocks of resilience. Building resilient agri-food systems should be a key policy objective and must ensure that all agri-food systems’ components function well over time. This requires mainstreaming resilience in agri-food policies, practices and finance with greater coordination across all relevant sectors and layers of government institutions to ensure coherence and convergence of actions.

* Adriano Timossi is a Partnerships, Outreach and Communication Specialist at FAO Geneva.
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