13 January 2021, Rome: Speaking at the One Planet Summit, held on 11 January 2021, the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), QU Dongyu, highlighted FAO’s track records leading the work on biodiversity across agriculture and food sectors, recognizing the importance of environmental sustainability as a key determinant of a long term “One Health for All.”
The Summit, hosted by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, was the fourth in a series that started as follow-up to the Paris Agreement on combating climate change, aimed to raise the level of ambition of the international community on the protection of nature, while responding to the new questions raised by the COVID-19 crisis.
The focus of the Summit this year was on biodiversity. 2021 is considered a big year on biodiversity for the international community. FAO has been on the forefront of the international efforts preserving biodiversity and protecting our planet.
Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy-Director General, explains FAO’s work on biodiversity, and on protecting our planet, including combating climate change.
Why biodiversity? And why 2021 is considered important for biodiversity?
Biodiversity is experiencing dramatic losses at the hands of humans. Unsustainable farming practices, agri-food systems and uncurbed urbanization are all taking a terrible toll on our natural resources. If left unchecked, the alarming pace of biodiversity losses will have devastating consequences for humankind and our capacity to feed the world.
For example: around three out four emerging infectious diseases in people originate from domestic or wild animals, and there is growing evidence that the key drivers are landscape changes and biodiversity loss. We have seen how COVID-19, a zoonotic disease that spreads from animals to humans, has jeopardized human health and upturned the global economy, putting lives, livelihoods and general well-being and security at risk the world over.
The One Planet Summit comes at a crucial moment, kicking off a series of key events throughout 2021 – notably the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, the UN Food Systems Summit, the UN Ocean Conference, and the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference – where all players must come together and commit to firmly placing both climate and nature at the core of global recovery actions. The UN Biodiversity Conference is expected to adopt a new post-2020 global biodiversity framework for the coming years to ensure that biodiversity contributes to the nutrition, food security, and livelihoods of people, especially for the most vulnerable.
Dealing with a growing climate emergency and diminishing biodiversity, we need to see a bold paradigm shift. Climate and environmental factors must be an integral part of economic models and plans. But political commitment alone is not enough. We must build partnerships, alliances and coalitions for low-carbon and green solutions. These must go hand-in-hand with employment, innovation, and socio-economic opportunities for everyone. These efforts are also crucial for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
What are FAO’s priorities on these?
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted areas of inequalities across agri-food systems. Business cannot continue as usual. This means we need to rethink our relationship with nature, allowing us to tackle diseases wherever they emerge in humans, animals, plants or the environment.
With an overall mandate of ending hunger and alleviating poverty – underpinned by the aspirational vision of better production, better consumption, better environment and better lives – FAO promotes the transformation to resilient, sustainable agri-food systems that foster healthy ecosystems and inclusive socio-economic models.
FAO supports countries to both adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food and agriculture through in-country development of national climate plans and research-based programmes and projects. The focus is on adapting and improving smallholder production sustainably, to ensure that the livelihoods of rural populations are more resilient.
FAO also promotes Nature-based Solutions, Energy-Smart Food Systems and Climate-Smart Agriculture to transform and reorient agriculture towards climate resilience and sustainability.
FAO views biodiversity as the basis of food security and promotes its sustainable use for food security, human well-being and development worldwide. It hosts the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Both aim to reach international consensus on policies for the sustainable use and conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture.
So, this important summit was a unique opportunity for leadership to align both towards a healthy and sustainable future and a sharp focus on how to demonstrate commitment and change on the ground. The current crisis and the necessity to transform agri-food systems represent a unique opportunity for Leaving No One Behind in our efforts for building back better. Transforming our agri-food systems can transform our future.
What concrete actions does FAO promote?
We know that landscape changes – both permanent due to deforestation, land-use change or urbanization, or temporary due to flooding or drought. These are major drivers of the (re-)emergence of a number of zoonotic diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Ebola, and Lyme disease.
Furthermore, the degradation of land and marine ecosystems undermines the well-being of over three billion people and costs about 10 per cent of the annual global gross product in loss of species and ecosystems services. Key ecosystems that deliver numerous services essential to food and agriculture, including supply of freshwater, protection against hazards and provision of habitat for species such as fish and pollinators, are declining at a sharp rate, as revealed in FAO’s State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report in 2019.
To reverse the situation, we need to restore our forests, farmland, pastures, wetlands and marine environments – not only to halt the erosion of biodiversity but also to fight climate change. So, FAO’s work on biodiversity aims at supporting countries in balancing the need to guarantee food security, improve nutrition and safeguard the livelihoods of the poor, especially in rural areas, while at the same time preventing the degradation, contamination and loss of natural resources.
The ‘UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration’ (2021-2031), led by FAO and the UN Environment Programme, is a global call to massively scale up to protect and revive ecosystems all around the world, from mountain forests to lakes to coastal areas. Research shows that more than two billion hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded landscapes offer potential for restoration. By restoring degraded ecosystems, we not only restore productivity and enhance biodiversity, we also create jobs and livelihoods, increase food security, and mitigate and adapt to climate change.
FAO has been working with countries for decades to scale up climate and biodiversity investment for the agricultural sectors, leveraging partnerships including with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and more recently the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to build climate-resilient development pathways.
The FAO-GEF portfolio, worth over $250 million in 2020, cuts across FAO’s broad range of work and acts as a vehicle for cross-sectoral efforts to unlock the potential of food supply chains through the sustainable use of natural resources and climate-smart practices. To date, projects have benefitted nearly five million people, created 350,000 jobs in rural communities, safeguarded biodiversity in close to 200 vulnerable marine ecosystems, and saved some 1000 crop varieties, animal species and breeds from extinction.
As an accredited entity to the GCF, the world’s largest dedicated fund for climate action, FAO uses its vast technical expertise and knowledge to mobilize large flows of climate finance to help mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. With projects amounting to $796.2 million last year, FAO works around the world, from combatting deforestation in Argentina to rangeland restoration in the Sudan, to support the transition towards low-emission, sustainable food systems through climate-smart approaches, practices and techniques that preserve the environment and biodiversity, and at the same time, help build the resilience of millions of poor family farmers.
You mentioned the link between biodiversity loss and the emergence of new diseases. What can we do?
We need to better understand the root causes of zoonotic diseases, in order to prevent future outbreaks and support a green recovery. A single spillover from animal to human can trigger a global pandemic. This means that we need to work on multiple fronts to reduce the likelihood of spillovers of potential pandemic agents at every crossroad.
Integrating ecosystem health with human, livestock and wild animal health is essential. This is the sure path to mitigating future pandemics. We must promote an ecosystem approach that preserves biodiversity, builds resilience and leads to sustainable food systems. Yet, connecting all these pieces is very challenging and calls for great collaboration and coordination at all levels.
The need for integrated surveillance in human, wildlife and farmed animal populations is an emerging priority to assess and manage the risks. Greater foresight of where, when and how spillovers occur will enable greater targeting of prevention efforts in communities likely to be first affected. And we must support indigenous peoples to secure and exercise their territorial rights to sustainably manage the wild resources they depend on for food, income and cultural identity.
In this way, FAO is working on the frontline to address and tackle emerging infectious diseases at the animal-human-environment interface, including assessing and responding to its potential impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods, veterinary public health and occupational safety, global food trade, markets, food supply chains and animal health.
The Director-General and many leaders spoke at the Summit of the “One Health” approach. What is it and why?
We really need to adopt, accelerate and scale-up “One Health“, an integrated approach that recognizes the fundamental and interconnected relationship between the health of people, animals, plants and the environment. It ensures that specialists in multiple sectors work together to tackle associated health threats, while protecting biodiversity.
The One Health approach should be a cornerstone strategy to prevent other zoonotic pandemics while providing the long-term resilience, sustainable agri-food systems, healthy environments we need to better re-orient, reshape and rebuild our future.
FAO, collaborating closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), promotes One Health in work on food security, sustainable agriculture, food safety, antimicrobial resistance (AMR), nutrition, animal and plant health, fisheries, and livelihoods. Ensuring a One Health approach is essential for progress to anticipate, prevent, detect and control diseases that spread between animals and humans, tackle antimicrobial resistance, ensure food safety, prevent environment-related human and animal health threats, as well as combatting many other challenges.