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The United Nations (UN) announced its global Food Systems Summit will be held in October. As I write this, it is unclear whether the Summit will be an in-person, virtual or hybrid event. Whatever the case, the event will encompass a spectrum of topics related to the production, processing, transportation, marketing and consumption of food. It will build on earlier summits held in 1996, 2002 and 2009 with the goal to reduce global hunger.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the intention at the 2021 event is to launch initiatives that deliver progress on the UN’s sustainable development goals. These focus on the creation of a healthier, more sustainable and equitable food system. By bringing together global leaders in science, business, government, civil society, policy, health care and academia as well as farmers, indigenous peoples, consumer groups and youth organizations, an action plan is to be developed to achieve these goals by 2030.

The Summit prompted me to think about the future of public agrifood events. I have vivid memories of in-person events with speakers who introduced ideas with energy and authenticity. I was a grad student at the University of Saskatchewan when I heard Senator Herb Sparrow speak about the implications of western Canadian soil erosion in his 1984 report Soil at Risk. That report seemed to spark all the great things that have happened around conservation tillage on the Prairies. As an early career scientist based in Nigeria, I participated in an international meeting in Mexico City where Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto spoke about the value of giving land titles to poor, smallholder farmers to enable them to access credit and establish equity. And in 2005, in Nairobi, I was privileged to hear Green Revolution plant breeder and Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug speak about the role of biotechnology in plant breeding. At the same event, I also chatted with my hero about our work and got his advice on science and international development matters.

Not all meetings are so memorable. Sometimes they prove to be yet another “talk shop” where attendees rehash the same old problems and advocate for the same old solutions we have heard proposed for decades. During the pandemic, however, many agrifood organizations maintained forward momentum with webinars and virtual conferences and these digital meetings proved unexpectedly productive.

The University of Alberta ALES faculty hosted online events with speakers from across the globe. These included Mauricio Lopes, former president of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, or Embrapa, the remarkably successful Brazilian equivalent of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. Lopes spoke at our annual Bentley Lecture in Sustainable Agriculture. In subsequent Canadian ag industry meetings it was suggested Alberta and Canada emulate the target-setting methods used by Embrapa to generate growth in the Brazilian agrifood sector.

The U of A also successfully presented educational courses online. In 2020, our colleagues in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology held a virtual, multi-module certificate course dubbed COVID and the Economics of World Agriculture and Food. A similar certificate course, Climate Change and the Economics of World Food and Agriculture, was offered in 2021. These courses attracted hundreds of registrants from 50-plus countries who spoke glowingly of this learning experience. The connection of current students, industry and government participants and the public created a bridge for active discussion and learning.

Many in the agriculture sector have experienced the benefits of virtual meetings, which include efficient use of time as well as reduced travel and accommodation expenses. Participants have also learned to take advantage of the tools within virtual platforms to extract more value from their events.

These advantages, however, are balanced against the weariness that comes with multi-hour screen engagement, the endless parade of PowerPoint decks and the inability to followup with a hallway conversation.

Yes, we still face many problems in our global food systems, but we have made major strides because clever, innovative people are willing to share their ideas with industry colleagues. If global leaders make headlines at the UN Food Systems Summit and draw attention to the work that needs to be done, I will consider this a win.

The same is true when our commodity groups, academic institutions, industry partners and others take the time and effort to bring people together virtually or in person to learn about and refine the next new idea or technology.

Stan Blade, PhD, is dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.


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