Recently I was on panel chaired by the UN Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohamed, where I was asked three questions about the UN’s “Stocktaking Moment” two years after the UN Food Systems Summit of 2021 (UNFSS). Here are my answers to the questions.
First, what is my main expectation of the stocktake moment?
Whenever I think of stocktaking, I think, literally, of looking at stock. What stock do we have? Do we have duplicates? Is anything past its sell by date? And what is missing? What we find in the food systems transformation cupboard of different countries and organisations is highly varied.
We are seeing good progress in many countries, particularly those which are working to better align their pathways with existing planning processes – some, such as Bangladesh, are developing integrated food systems action plans, others such as Nigeria are strengthening coordination at the decentralized level, others including Pakistan have identified and are moving quickly to fill gaps in their policies that have been constraining the development of their food systems. Some organisations have proactively used food systems as an organising framework, and I would include FAO and GAIN in this category. Therefore, the stocktake has to celebrate progress, but also honest about where progress is slower than needed and constructive on how to accelerate it. We also have to refresh and renew the relationships we made across boundaries, sectors, and disciplines during the UNFSS. For one intense year, it did not matter where you came from in the food system ecosystem, only where we were going, together. We need to reinvigorate that spirit. Finally, we need to learn. What is working and why? Be humble. Don’t just be in show and tell mode, be in absorb and listen mode too.
Second, what is my priority recommendation for the stocktake moment?
For too long food systems transformation has been driven mainly by global forces: conferences, reports, recommendations, and data. Now country transformation has to take centre stage. This is where the hard yards are to be made. What can we all do to support country stakeholders, starting with governments, to drive their food system transformation towards outcomes that are positive for people and planet? Food system transformation is challenging for every country. How aligned is policy across sectors? How many resources do governments, donors and the private sector allocate to food system transformation, is it enough and how is it distributed? How do we know if food system transformation is underway and how do we monitor it? These are the questions that all countries are struggling with and they need help to formulate answers that work for them. I know the UNFSS Hub is doing work on food system budgets at a country level to be launched at the Stocktake Moment and it feels like an exemplar initiative. Similarly GAIN is working with 8 country governments on country food systems dashboards. Country level food systems transformation means a commitment from all of us to work at the national and subnational level as well as a commitment to coordinate that support.
Finally, what do I think is needed to maintain momentum for food system change to drive us faster towards the SDGs?
At the country level, we need to support the food system National Convenors. They have an extremely challenging job, to maintain momentum in an inclusive way. Many will feel they are working against the tide: their ministries, budgets and metrics are not set up to provide them with the infrastructure they need. Their private sectors and donors do not yet have a prioritised set of activities for food system transformation and even if they do, getting them to adhere to it requires sustained diplomacy and determination. But action at the global level is still required. While the world is in as much turmoil in 2023 as it was in 2021, turmoil generates windows of opportunity for food systems change. There are new administrations such as in Brazil, new organisational leadership such as at the World Bank, new initiatives such as the French led Global Financial Pact for climate change, and new data which can jolt us out of our stupor such as the recent projections in the Lancet on the doubling of the population with Type 2 Diabetes by 2050 to 1.3 billion.
Food is still not high enough in a global agenda fraught with challenges: of climate and environmental destruction, poverty, conflict and war. We need continued leadership and advocacy to see food systems as a thread which contributes to but can help mitigate these crises. The Stocktaking will be opened by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, who has shown great leadership in making the link from food, nutrition and diets to this big agenda. We all need to emulate his leadership to seize the food system transformation opportunities so critical to a safer fairer and more sustainable world in the 21st Century.