Investing in innovation and research is key to ensuring the sustainability of date palm production, a valuable food and livelihood resource for millions of people in the Near East and North Africa said FAO’s director-general, José Graziano da Silva.

“The impacts of climate change are making water increasingly scarce, provoking droughts that are more severe and prolonged, and contributing to the outbreak and spread of pests and diseases, such as the Red Palm Weevil,” said Graziano da Silva at the 11th Session of the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation (KIADPAI).

“We urgently need to build resilience and promote the adaptation of agricultural sectors through climate-smart practices that can preserve natural resources and biodiversity,” he said, noting the importance of the date palm, which is deeply rooted in the economies, cultures and diets of the people of the Near East and North Africa regions.

Graziano da Silva referred to the diverse range of tools and knowledge that science and innovation have made available to produce “more and better with less resources”.

These include, for example, hydroponic systems that produce high-quality food with no soil and using only 10% of the water normally used in traditional systems, and the use of drones to help track pests and diseases, as well as the use of nanotechnology for water desalinisation.

“The challenge is to seize all the opportunities to apply and develop innovative solutions,” Graziano da Silva said. “For that, we need to put in place innovative policies, investments and partnerships bringing together the public and private sectors and look towards pursuing long-term commitment.”

Last November, FAO organised the first International Symposium on Agricultural Innovation for Family Farmers, in which participants recognised the importance of family farmers for agricultural innovation.

Graziano da Silva emphasised the need to strengthen the capacity of farmers to innovate and acknowledged the invaluable role the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation plays in the promotion of innovative agricultural practices, especially in water scarce regions.

From ‘feeding’ to ‘nourishing’ populations

FAO’s director-general highlighted the need to foster innovation “across the whole food system,” and not just in the agricultural sectors.  “We need to reposition our food systems away from simply ‘feeding’ to ‘nourishing’ people with healthy and nutritious food,” he said. “This change is fundamental to tackle hunger and all forms of malnutrition, particularly obesity.”

Globally, more than 2 billion people are overweight, including 670 million who are obese (accounting for about 13% of the world’s adult population).

According to the World Health Organisation, the proportion of obese adults in the Near East and North Africa is around 30%, reaching almost 40% in specific countries.

“The growing rate of obesity is happening at a huge socio-economic cost,” Graziano da Silva said. “Obesity is a risk factor for many non-communicable diseases such as stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer,” he added.

Estimates indicate that the global economic impact of obesity is about US$2 trillion (R28.86 trillion) per year (2.8% of the global GDP). “This is equivalent to the global impacts of smoking or of armed conflicts,” he warned.

The main reason behind the rise of obesity, he noted, is that current food systems have increased the availability and accessibility of highly processed food that is very caloric and energy-dense, high in fat, sugar and salt.

“This is particularly worrisome when countries have an excessive dependency on food imports, as is the case in the Near East and the North Africa region,” Graziano da Silva said. He called for food trade regulations that address the imports of unhealthy food and contribute to avoiding what he defined as the “globalisation of obesity”.

FAO’s director-general said the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai will provide an opportunity for the international community to discuss innovative ideas and partnerships to tackle future challenges, including food insecurity and malnutrition. – Press release

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