21 January 2021, Rome: Austria has a lot to offer in terms of experience, best practices and technical knowledge, and could serve as a model of rural development for other countries with comparable landscapes and similar challenges, the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) QU Dongyu said today.
The FAO chief delivered the keynote address at the Winter Conference 2021 of the Eco-Social Forum, hosted by the Government of Austria. The Conference, the largest discussion forum in Austria, is the 68th edition and the focuses range from agriculture and forestry in times of crisis to fighting economic recession and climate change.
In his remarks, the Director-General reflected on the elements that contributed to the impressive path of rural development Austria has taken since the end of World War II and analyzed the factors that are the backbone of today’s rural life.
He pointed to Austria’s invaluable experience of combining solid agricultural policies of promoting diversified rural economy with the provision of adequate rural infrastructure, referring to this combination as a game-changer for villages and towns.
The Director-General also highlighted how countries facing comparable challenges could benefit from Austria sharing its experiences, and offered FAO as a matchmaker and facilitator. He outlined several priority areas for such cooperation including sustainable agricultural and rural development in mountainous areas; diversification of the rural economy with a focus on rural tourism and agri-tourism; strengthening cooperation among farmers and with other rural businesses; as well as sustainable forest management.
Qu alluded to the FAO Hand-in-Hand Initiative as an ideal framework for such collaboration, in particular for the benefit of Land-Locked Developing Countries and mountainous regions.
Turning the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to embrace the digital world
The Director-General also talked about how the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of innovation and digital technologies and their potential to ensure resilience against such crisis in the future.
He highlighted that the information needs of farmers are increasing as they must make more complex decisions on land use, crop selection, choice of markets and other areas that impact the livelihoods of their families and communities.
“Having access to the right information at the right time and in the right form is no longer a luxury, but a necessity”, the Director-General explained, citing a mobile phone as “the most important agricultural tool today and in the future”.
Qu noted that numerous disruptions in food supply chains triggered by pandemic-related restrictions forced farmers to look for alternative ways to market and sell their produce directly to the consumers, therefore innovative approaches, such as e-commerce platforms, are of particular relevance today.
In this context, the FAO Director-General urged the international community to take advantage of modern information and communication technologies and incorporate these innovations across food value chains and agri-food systems.
He also noted that in Austria the digital portfolio and agriculture were managed by the same Ministry, which provides considerable synergy potential for innovation and digital transformation in the agri-food sector.
The Director-General referred to FAO’s steady embracing of the digital world, by incorporating more and more innovative digital tools in its work. As examples, he cited the state-of-the-art tools that the Hand-in-Hand Initiative builds on, namely the Hand in Hand Geospatial Platform, the Data Lab for statistical innovation and Earth Map, an innovative, free and open-source Big Data tool, developed by FAO in collaboration with Google.
Qu stressed the importance of developing a digital strategy to ensure that all citizens receive adequate connectivity even in rural and remote areas, as well as education to operate digital tools. In this regard, he noted that FAO’s 1000 Digital Villages Initiative aims to promote the digital transformation of villages and small towns across the world, and invited Austria to join the initiative.
At the end of his keynote address, he stated that “FAO will continue to work hand-in-hand with all partners to scale-up innovation and disseminate promising technologies, for better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life”.
The opening session of the Conference also saw the participation of Julia Klöckner, Germany’s Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for Budget and Administration and Elisabeth Köstinger, Austria’s Minister for Sustainability and Tourism.