As the current global pandemic wreaks havoc on food systems across the world, it is disproportionately affecting some of the most vulnerable populations worldwide.

World map showing location of spices

To tackle the global challenges to food systems, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO,  gathered a roundtable of experts on July 1 to discuss ways in which partnerships with academia can help solve the issues the pandemic has emphasized in food systems globally.

The roundtable was streamed to audiences around the world to stimulate discussion on how the FAO and academic institutions around the globe can collaborate, and Patrick J. Stover, Ph.D., vice chancellor of Texas A&M AgriLife, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, participated in the roundtable discussion.

“I was honored to participate in this roundtable discussion to look at ways FAO and academia can work together to solve challenges highlighted by the current health crisis,” said Stover. “FAO’s work is critical to the global response to this pandemic, and AgriLife is proud of our existing partnership.” 

FAO and academia collaborate

Beth Bechdol, deputy director-general of FAO, kicked off the session, underscoring FAO’s commitment to creating unique partnerships to address the global challenges facing member countries, and she noted the inequity of the virus’s impact.

“COVID-19 is placing great risk to some of our most fragile countries, many of which are already home to millions of people already affected by high levels of food and nutrition insecurity,” Bechdol said.

She noted that FAO has been working with partners in academia and member countries to provide valuable information throughout the pandemic and are currently working on a comprehensive COVID response plan to address specific country-level needs.

Setting the scene with remarks before the roundtable began, E. Mohammad Hossein Emadi, ambassador and permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to FAO and Rome-based agencies, expressed the need for academia to be “the voice of science” helping to provide insights across the health, economic and food security issues the pandemic is causing.

Each of the roundtable participants identified areas where greater collaboration between the FAO and academia could help identify and solve some of the food system issues that are increasing food insecurity as the pandemic continues.

Pandemic creates opportunities

“The pandemic is offering yet another opportunity for FAO and land grant universities to demonstrate their value to all members of our global society,” Stover said. “The pandemic has also reminded us that to be true to our missions, we must always be a reservoir of evidence-based, comprehensive and deep knowledge, as well as world-class expertise.”

Stover talked about how the collaboration between FAO and Texas A&M AgriLife has cultivated and harnessed university capacity and built enduring relationships that advance ongoing needs of member nations, while also providing infrastructure that can be rapidly deployed in a crisis. To illustrate areas where partnership could enhance existing efforts within academia, he gave several specific examples of ways Texas A&M AgriLife has responded to the crisis but noted that no one entity can solve the crises that have resulted from the pandemic.

“None of us has the horsepower to go at it alone,” he explained. “It’s critical that the FAO and academia continue to work together, elevate the food system crisis, and more importantly motivate world leaders to invest in transformative research, education and services that meet the rapidly changing context and needs of populations worldwide.”

Technology and policy

Shenggen Fan, chair professor at China Agricultural University and former director-general of International Food Policy Research Institute, discussed the role of technology and the need for better data to inform decision making, which requires partnerships across all sectors.

Pascal Bergeret, director of the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Montpellier at the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies, CIHEAM, emphasized the importance of strong evidence informing policies. He noted that research institutions and academia play a critical role in helping to shape policy guided by science.

Harold Roy-Macauley, the director general of Africa Rice Center, talked about the impacts of COVID-19 on Africa, where many countries are often on the brink of food and water insecurity, noting that support services and programs are critical to curbing the food system challenges magnified by COVID-19. He focused on the importance of research across health, economies, food systems and the environment—not only for helping to address the current crisis but also helping to prevent future crises.

Louise Fresco, president of the executive board of Wageningen University and Research, explained that the two essential things academia brings to the table are a new generation of scientists, and scientific evidence to support science-driven policy. She noted that FAO needs to harness the power of youth through academia, and she highlighted the important role of academia and research institutes supporting science-driven policy in food and agriculture.

The roundtable brought forth important conversation on the need for greater collaboration between academia and FAO, and FAO leadership noted that these discussions will have to continue. FAO has made the entire session available via YouTube. Click here to watch.

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