Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor took centre stage during a high-level conference in Bangkok, Thailand on October 5 to highlight Bhutan’s experiences in moving forward on a vital agrifood systems transformation, one the region and the world have committed to, to achieve the global Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

The Asia-Pacific Symposium on Agrifood Systems Transformation, convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) brought together government ministers from across the region, private sector, academia and other stakeholders to map out a massive acceleration to transform the agrifood systems, or risk worsening malnutrition and further environmental degradation in the world’s hungriest and most populous region. 

Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor said, “Borrowing the words of FAO, the twin shocks of the Pandemic and the 5F crisis- food, feed, fuel, fertilizer, and finance weakened the already existing weak agrifood system in the region. The symposium is an opportune moment to reflect on challenges and opportunities for better food system and for better world.”

He said, “In Bhutan, agriculture is the mainstay of livelihood for more than half of the Bhutanese population and an important sector contributing to the country’s gross domestic product. The Royal Government of Bhutan has been stressing building a resilient and productive agricultural system. But the rugged terrain with less fertile soil makes agriculture very challenging. To make it worse, we face myriad issues such as climate change impacts, inadequate digitalization, lack of technologies for mechanization, rampant human-wildlife conflicts, increasing land fragmentation and so forth. Nevertheless, as we embark on building forward stronger after the pandemic, the food system is at the central of our efforts. We aspire to have high-performance food systems by 2030. It should be resilient to shocks and climate change; effectively provide affordable, safe and nutritious food for all, provides gainful employment, empower women and vulnerable and ultimately advance towards the fulfilment of SDGs.” 

Rising food prices, floods, drought, water scarcity, increasing climate-related disasters, the global pandemic and conflicts near and far, are driving food insecurity across the Asia-Pacific region. These challenges directly impact the most vulnerable people of this region, including smallholder farmers and others who depend on the land for their livelihoods, a press release from the FAo stated. “Urban poor are also directly affected.”

The FAO stated that climate change has worsened conditions for smallholders. Rainfall patterns, essential for agriculture in the monsoon region, have changed and so have the frequencies and timings of pest and disease outbreaks, thus lowering yields. 

The region already experiences 60 percent of global fatalities and 40 percent of economic losses due to multiple hazards and risks, according to FAO. “In summary, the region’s complex agrifood systems are under enormous strain.” 

Last year, caught in the grip of a global pandemic, world leaders pledged to transform their agrifood systems to make them more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable.  

Speaking at the beginning of a three-day Asia-Pacific symposium, the world’s first since the UNFSS, which aims to fast-track agrifood systems transformation in this vast region, FAO’s Director-General, QU Dongyu, said the region’s transformation needs to focus on outcomes that result in better production, better nutrition, better environment, and a better life for all – ensuring no one is left behind.

According to one recent UN report, Asia and the Pacific are so off course, it would need until 2065 to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals – a delay of 35 years. 

The reason for some of the more recent setbacks is clear. Droughts and floods, the highest food prices in decades, armed conflicts and the fallout and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted supply chains, lives and livelihoods. Together, these have resulted in the present crisis of five ‘Fs’ – lack of food, feed, fuel, fertilizer and finance, and a prediction that there could be reductions in cereal output next year due to fertilizer shortages in some countries in the region.

However, the backsliding predates the pandemic, as successive annual reports of FAO’s publication, the State of Food Security and Nutrition, were warning the fight against hunger and malnutrition was failing in this region. In 2021, more than 400 million people in Asia-Pacific were malnourished, most of them in South Asia, with 40 percent of all inhabitants unable to afford a healthy diet. 

More than 80 percent of the world’s smallholders and family farmers live off the land in this Asia-Pacific region, and their interests and livelihoods must be safeguarded, the Symposium was told. Social safety nets and reskilling programmes to improve employment prospects should form an important part of this transformation. 

“It’s time that all stakeholders in this region made bold moves toward this transformation of our food and agriculture systems,” said Jong-Jin Kim, Assistant Director-General and FAO Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific. “Governments must act through leadership. Asia-Pacific’s private sector must broaden its customer base to provide affordable solutions to the region’s smallholders.” 

He said that civil society must work more proactively with policymakers and the private sector. “Academia must accelerate its research, while resource partners must make this transformation their top priority. FAO is here to help our Members and all partners achieve this.”