An open letter to COP26, businesses and policymakers from global youth and allies

London, 28 October 2021 - 

Food production is one of the largest drivers of climate change and environmental degradation. Current diets are contributing to a rising burden of diet-related chronic diseases. To address these intertwined issues, there is an urgent need to transition to sustainable and nourishing dietary patterns. Addressing food production through increasing efficiencies or transitioning to nature positive food production is necessary but insufficient. It is impossible to meet the 1.5 degrees goal without widespread dietary change.

Consumption patterns must shift to ensure food and nutrition security, and a livable climate for a growing population.

Over 100,000 young people from across the globe have engaged in consultation processes as part of the UN Food Systems Summit and the Act4Food, Act4Change movement. We have shared our views on challenges, solutions and priorities. What came out, loud and clear, is that the top priority of youth is for everyone, globally, to have access to healthy and sustainable diets. Many young people are already acting upon this priority in their own lives and communities. Countless youth have changed their own diets and founded health and sustainability-oriented organizations, student groups and startups.

Young people engaged in the UN Food Systems Summit agree on three key principles for healthy and sustainable diets. First, populations that consume more than the recommended healthy levels of animal-sourced foods need to decrease their intake.

However, nutritious ASF consumption should be increased among nutritionally vulnerable groups, particularly infants and children in low-income settings. Second, healthy and sustainable diets should contain minimal quantities of ultra-processed foods and foods high in unhealthy fats, salt and sugars. Third, all foods in the diet should be produced regeneratively and humanely. These principles should be adapted to different regions and cultures in correspondence to national, local and Indigenous knowledge systems. They should also work in support of decentralized and smallholder farming practices, and support food sovereignty. 

Despite this clear mandate, youth’s prioritisation of healthy and sustainable diets is not currently reflected in the COP26 policy narrative. The creation of the Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems Coalition at the UN Food Systems Summit was a step in the right direction, as it will enable stakeholders to come together to make commitments and act on them. But this alone is not enough. 

The importance of healthy and sustainable diets must be reflected in the COP26 outcomes, as well as in the UN’s biodiversity COP, the Nutrition for Growth Summit, Stockholm+50 and other global fora. 

World view from above with stars

Consumption patterns must shift to ensure food and nutrition security, and a livable climate for a growing population. © ixpert/Shutterstock

Time is precious; we cannot afford to repeatedly miss opportunities that address human, animal and planetary health simultaneously. These global fora can accelerate progress on healthy, sustainable diets through providing aspirational guidance and implementable solutions to countries, civil society and businesses. At these events, healthy and sustainable diets should be prominently featured – both as a standalone issue and as a cross-cutting lever for change when discussing related topics such as biodiversity, water use and pollution, and carbon sequestration. 

On the eve of COP26 and in full awareness of the urgent need to act on the environmental and health consequences of food systems, we, the undersigned, call on businesses and policymakers to act on the following items:

1. Inclusion of healthy and sustainable diets at forthcoming global fora, including COP26, the Biodiversity COP and the Nutrition for Growth Summit - with a strong focus on developing a global approach to measuring progress on healthy, sustainable diets; 

We call on COP26 specifically to: 

  • Encourage member states to include healthy and sustainable diets in their Nationally Determined Contributions
  • Establish a session of the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture focused on healthy and sustainable diets 
  • Ensure catering at COP26 and future UNFCCC events provide catering in line with the three principles for healthy and sustainable diets outlined here

2. Governments should support the scaling of regenerative and agroecological production of health-promoting foods through agricultural subsidies.

3. Governments and businesses should include commitments and strategies on healthy, sustainable diets at the heart of 1.5 degree climate and nature commitments;

4. Governments, businesses and academia should adopt frameworks that use true cost accounting of food and measure agricultural success according to quality (nutrients produced), not only quantity (the calories and yield) of food, and;

5.  Governments and businesses should invest in sustainable future foods, including alternative proteins, while ensuring a just transition for vulnerable sectors so that workers’ rights and livelihoods are protected.

Including healthy, sustainable diets in climate and nature commitments is crucial to enable implementation of needed policy measures including the redesign of food environments so that advertising, nudging and behavioural strategies enable, incentivize and empower consumers to make healthy and sustainable food choices, and the reshaping of dietary guidelines and food procurement to incorporate sustainability. Adopting true cost accounting  frameworks would enable a much-needed subsidy shift away from systems that damage human and planetary health to those that maintain and restore it.

We are at a pivotal moment for collective decision-making. COP26 and other upcoming global fora are where power will be wielded and decisions made that will impact us as youth for decades to come. We commend the UNFSS for its engagement of young people to date. We implore others to emulate this approach. Yet youth engagement will only have been meaningful if the priority of youth is acted upon. 

Young people understand the importance of healthy and sustainable diets for the health of people and the planet. We have taken action for healthy, sustainable diets and will continue to do so. 

We now call on you to do the same.  

-Youth Sustainable Diets Campaign Committee

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