Food Systems Summit reveals challenges of transforming global food production

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Agnes Kalibata, special envoy of the U.N. secretary-general for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. Closing Plenary of the Pre-Summit of the United Nations Food System Summit 2021. FAO headquarters (Plenary hall) ©UN Photo/ Giulio Napolitano

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Governments, companies and other organizations offered more than 200 commitments at the world’s first food systems summit aimed at addressing unequal access to food in a more sustainable, healthier and equitable way.

Organizers of the U.N. Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) said that 148 of the commitments are from institutions and align with the summit’s action tracks—developed from 18 months of dialogues between governments and stakeholders. The five action tracks aim to ensure access to safe nutritious food for all; shift to sustainable consumption patterns; boost nature-positive production; advance equitable livelihoods; and build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress.

Held virtually on September 23 and 24, the summit was convened to deliver progress on the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a food systems approach, leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality.

In scenes now typical of the pandemic, lone moderators led the summit sessions and presented to an empty, darkened auditorium while leaders of governments, corporations, and civil society organizations delivered speeches on large screens behind the podium.

“As we entered the Decade of Action to achieve the SDGs by 2030, many of the world’s food systems were fragile and not fulfilling the right to adequate food for all,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in his address.  “Hunger was on the rise again. Three billion people—almost half of all humanity—could not afford a healthy diet.

“We must build on good practices—such as Indigenous food systems—invest in science and innovation, and engage all people—particularly women and youth, Indigenous Peoples, businesses and producers—in achieving the SDGs,”  he said.

Forests, agriculture and sustainability

Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), called for stronger action on the Rio Conventions addressing biodiversity, climate change and desertification and highlighted the role of healthy, biodiverse forests in a sustainable food system.

“Food must be on everyone’s plates,” she said. “ Sustainable management of wild species. Resilience of biodiversity in agriculture and forestry. Sustainable production practices and supply chains. And the elimination of unsustainable consumption choices. All these targets add up to more sustainable food systems because we are securing the very foundations of these systems—that is—the natural world.”

Andersen also highlighted a recent report revealing that 87 percent of current support to agricultural producers, approximately $540 billion per year, often distorts prices, degrades the environment, or harms human health.

To transform food systems and achieve the SDGs, the report calls on countries to phase out what it refers to as the most distorting, environmentally and socially harmful support, such as price incentives and coupled subsidies, and redirect it towards investments in public goods and services for agriculture, such as research and development and infrastructure, as well as decoupled fiscal subsidies. The report was a joint effort by UNEP, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

Pledges and commitments

The summit yielded funding pledges from governments and corporations, including $922 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to address global nutrition to help women and children over the next five years and a $10 billion commitment from the U.S. government to end hunger and invest in food systems domestically and abroad.

“This funding will help more people around the world get the nutrition they need to live a healthy life, and we hope it serves as an invitation for more donors, foundations, governments, and private-sector leaders to build on today’s investment with more bold commitments,” said Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation.

Member state commitments included promises to improve Indigenous People’s participation in food systems transformation, addressing malnutrition in adults and children, promoting gender equality, and protecting biodiversity.

For example, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that her country will promote the role of the Māori people in their food sectors and encourage the growth of Māori agribusiness by removing barriers and empowering Māori leadership.  “We are committed to ensuring Indigenous Peoples can help lead the way forward,” she said.

Other countries pledged support for Indigenous rights, including Honduras, Samoa, Peru and the Philippines.

Controversies arise

However, some have criticized the U.N. food Systems Summit for failing to address the root causes of the world’s failing food system.

Hans Herren, World Food Prize and Right Livelihood Award Laureate, wrote, “the forum wasted the chance to consider real alternatives to our corporate-led, environmentally harmful ways of producing what we eat.”

There are no guarantees corporations will fulfill their commitments if governments do not hold them accountable, he wrote, adding that the summit failed to chart a clear course towards more sustainable food production.

In New York City, Jakarta and Manila, grassroots organizations with the Global People’s Summit (GPS) on Food Systems—an alliance of 22 regional and international organizations—held protests, criticizing the participation of big corporations at the summit.

“These corporations are out to further consolidate their control of land, seeds, agricultural inputs and markets by embedding themselves even deeper into policy-making processes of the U.N. and its member states, as what we are witnessing now with the UNFSS,” said Sarojeni Rengam, Asia Pacific executive director of the Pesticide Action Network which is part of the GPS.

Rengam said it remains unclear how the U.N. food system summit addresses the needs to Indigenous Peoples, small landless farmers, women, and other marginalized interests.

Work continues after the summit

Meanwhile, member countries will continue to develop and update their food systems pathways documents—detailed plans to fulfill their summit commitments—and how these relate to the five action tracks. The UN will be supporting these countries in effecting change across their entire food systems.

At a global level, the three U.N. agencies— FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Programme—will jointly lead a U.N. system-wide coordination hub to continue the work of the summit. The hub will benefit from structured advice from representatives of priority constituencies and issues, particularly youth, Indigenous Peoples, and women.

Guterres is expected to submit an annual report to the U.N. High-Level Political Forum to monitor the summit’s progress against the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda and will lead a global stock-taking every two years to review progress.

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