ASEAN food systems need transformation

THE Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) recently hosted a dialogue aimed at making the region's food systems stronger and more sustainable.

Results of the "Breaking Silos: Transforming Agricultural Education and Research toward Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia" dialogue will be used to inform the first-ever United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in New York this September, SEARCA director Glenn Gregorio said.

Noting that food systems were still recovering from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Gregorio said the May 18, 2021 gathering brought together 56 participants in three discussion sessions.

"The dialogue discussed the transformations needed in education and research for higher education institutions in the region to establish the future direction for food systems and accelerate collective action to this end," he added.

At the upcoming UNFSS, inputs from all over the world will be used to identify sustainable solutions for the future of food.

David Nabarro, strategic director of the Food Systems Summit Dialogues Support Team, said "individual and collective actions are significant to build a future of food that is sustainable and equitable."

Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary General's special envoy for the 2021 UNFSS, told the dialogue that the world's food systems were valuable instruments of change as they touch every aspect of human existence.

"Food is powerful. The food we eat brings us together as families, as communities, and as nations. It underpins our cultures, our economies, and our relationship with the natural world," Kalibata said.

Gregorio said the dialogue covered a diverse array of perspectives, including those of the academe, government, agro-industry, farmer groups, and the youth, to draw out new knowledge, research findings, and policies in agricultural higher education that are needed in the next decade.

SEARCA also gathered a suite of recommendations on governance strategies and policies as well as strategic alliances needed to ensure a more holistic approach to research and higher education.

Oliver Oliveros, engagement lead and food systems champion of the UNFSS Secretariat, said there was a need to assess and adjust agricultural education curricula to a more integrated and holistic approach.

"We need to look into collaboration and various linkages, not only in terms of policies but also of programs," he added.

To make curricular programs and pedagogical approaches innovative, the consensus was to promote student enrollment in agriculture-related fields by building a more positive career image in this sector and by providing scholarships.

Agriculture students will also need be trained to be business owners who return to their hometowns after graduation instead of becoming employees in urban centers. Support for non-traditional learners such as farmers to earn degrees through a flexible learning system that gives credit to field experience was also agreed upon.

Shakuntala Thilsted, 2021 World Food Prize Laureate, proposed regional curricula with practical on-field engagement, offered as an elective course for tertiary students from different disciplines.

To leverage research for development and extension, Gregorio said participants agreed that the focus should be on agro-ecosystems and their impact on the environment and vice versa, including long-term studies, and multi-stakeholder engagement in landscape-based development planning and integration of multi-sector plans.

Participants also agreed on incorporating social dimensions in research to account for adaptive capacity and pooling of experts and facilities.

Key recommendations

The key recommendations that emerged from discussions on imperatives for governance and policies towards an enabling environment were: to start small and build on small successes to upscale food systems solutions; and to look at basic research and policy support for the development of new varieties and breeds, agricultural systems technologies, postharvest management, food quality and nutrition, and weather forecasting.

Other recommendations include a shift from national government-controlled systems to the national agricultural research and extension systems model.

Gregorio said SEARCA had submitted the outcomes of the dialogue to UNFSS organizers.

Dindo Campilan, regional director for Asia and Oceania and hub director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, served as last month's dialogue curator.

The discussion facilitators were Jose Camacho Jr., University of the Philippines Los Baños chancellor; Shenggen Fan, China Agricultural University professor and former International Food Policy Research Institute director; and V. Bruce Tolentino, private sector member of the Monetary Board.