Reflections on UN Food Systems Summit progress to date

London, 3 May 2021 - 

So, we are 13 weeks away from the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit, hosted by the Government of Italy in July.  How are things going?  
First, some basics if you are new to this: UN Secretary General Guterres has called a Summit in September of all UN member states to address how to make food systems better able to tackling global hunger and malnutrition (static or on the rise prior to COVID and now rising fast due to COVID-19) while sustainably operating within planetary boundaries. He asked Dr. Agnes Kalibata to be the Special Envoy for the Summit. 
Dubbed a "Peoples Summit", it is open to unprecedented engagement in every country, from every sector, and every constituency. It is also dubbed a "Solutions Summit" with a focus on action. I lead one of the five thematic areas or "Action Tracks" (ATs) on "Ensuring access to safe and nutritious foods for all". There are four other ATs, a Science Group, a Champions Group, 4 cross-cutting Levers and the over 100 Summit Dialogues to date. You can find it all here.  
As an AT Chair, I have a particular view of course, but I think the Action Tracks are doing well in three key areas.
First, new ideas for action: verdict - exciting. Perhaps the best thing to come out of all of this work is the shifts in mindsets that we see - many driven by ideas received via the open portals - whether it is:

  • the realisation that we could actually end global hunger (and at a price tag of one sixth of the US Covid relief package) via the proposed "End Hunger Nourish the Future Fund"
  • that we need to completely "reset" the way we approach under 5 wasting, to combat the recent reversal of a decade of progress, with numbers up 17% in a year
  • that we need a new Alliance to End Anaemia - one that covers food, health and environment systems
  • that investing in youth in agriculture should not be a niche activity, but core to the future of agriculture and food systems
  • young people across the world can find common ground to develop a youth pledge for healthy diets across cultures
  • that a bunch of researchers can come together and develop a Countdown to 2030 report every year (first one to be published in September) that sets out what success looks like in food system transformation
  • Social Protection programmes that can deliver on a range of food system outcomes, not just on income support
  • SMEs can be connected to major sources of capital and not have to rely only on "niche" impact funds
  • that leadership in food systems organisations should of course be 50/50 for women and men, with an accountability mechanism to track progress
  • many underutilized crops are like buried treasure when it comes to nutrition, biodiversity and livelihood generation. Reliance on 12 plants and 5 animal species for 75% of the world’s food is not exactly best practice when it comes to building resilient food systems 
  • that cold chains can be sustainable and multipurpose - for vaccines, medicines and food
  • that Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) standards for business conduct should have an F, for food, added to them
  • that the SDGs are absolutely silent on food safety standards (unsafe food is a major health hazard and killer)
  • that we need not only the right to food to underpin and drive food system transformation, but all the rights together, on labour, land, water, health, women, peace, education and more.   

Second, mobilisation: verdict - a good start made. There is sense that we are part of something much bigger, of conversations that are happening all over the world. The incredible generosity of time, ideas and spirit from so many people, within the Summit communities and way beyond - all delivered with the compassion and kindness of people volunteering their precious energy to the Summit. The progress we are making is invigorating, even if there are setbacks along the way. There is so much support from all the other components of the Summit: the dialogues, the champions the science group, the levers and of course the secretariat (see that link again to follow this!). We have incredible project management teams behind us in our Action Tracks who somehow keep multiple plates spinning without any of the valuable crockery breaking.  
Significantly, there are now over 100 governments organising national food system dialogues in the run up to the Summit, an amazing success led by David Nabarro and his team. Since December all ATs have been working hard to map member state priorities and for the member states that have chosen to engage with our AT. There are now 26 in AT1 and we have had bilateral meetings with nearly all, in addition we have been listening closely to the outcomes of the dialogues as they happen, scanning them for priorities. Member states have the unique power to lead how food is grown, produced, processed, distributed marketed and consumed and we have received ideas from many member states which are contributing to the development of game changers.

Woman sorting fish in Mozambique

Young woman sorting fish in Mozambique. ©IFAD courtesy to UNFSS

Third, the detailed ideas for practical change: verdict - promising but complex. Since the last blog I wrote on the Summit, the Action Tracks finalised a first wave of "game changers", summarised in 107 two-pagers (embodying over 1000 ideas received). That was February. In March we spent some time working and consulting on the best way of organising them into 15 Action Areas that all stakeholders could easily "dock" with. In April we have been busy working to launch those 15 Action Areas and assigning wave 1 and new "wave 2" game changers to them (in wave 2 we have just received hundreds of additional ideas). And we are currently thinking about how to cluster all of these ideas into a manageable and presentable set of 3-4 "solution clusters" per Action Area.  So for AT1 the numbers go like this: about 300 ideas received in wave 1+2, 42 game changers developed, organised into 3 Action Areas (plus some game changers from other Action Tracks), and each AA will generate 3-4 solution clusters.  

In sum,

  • 300+ ideas 
  • 42 game changers
  • 3 Action Areas
  • 12 "solution clusters" (I did say it was complex!).

I can’t speak for all the ATs, but I feel good about the Action Areas we are shepherding and the solution clusters we are building, and I suspect the other AT Chairs are equally optimistic.  

During May and June, a dozen or so "solution clusters" per Action Track will be further developed by a wide range of stakeholders. In AT1 this means getting behind things like Empowering Smallholders, Small Scale Technology for Smallholders, the "End Hunger, Nourish the Future Fund", Support to SMEs in the Agro-Food System, Social Protection for Food System goals, Nutritional Underutilized Crops, Clean Energy Cool Chain Infrastructure, Accelerating Anaemia Reductions for Women and Children, A "Reset" in Approaches to Child Under 5 Wasting, Fortification of Staple Crops and Staple Foods, Food Safety Geared to the Informal Food Sector and Low Income Consumers, Food Systems Rights, Planning and Data, and Achieving Gender Equity in Food Systems Leadership.  

These are not final, and new solution clusters will emerge, but these are shaping up and gathering support. Our goal is to have an engaging 2-page summary plus a more detailed 8-10 page supporting document for each of the 12 solution clusters by the middle of June. In the process we hope to gather interest and support for these solutions along the way and receive some initial indications of support in the context of the Pre-Summit in Italy at the end of July. 
In the midst of this fast paced work I frequently get asked these questions: 
How can we come up with the big moon-shots for food system transformation? I prefer to talk about pathways to food system transformation, pathways that will be different for each member state because there is no one size fits all. I like to think of the 50-60 "solution clusters" that the 15 Action Areas are busy generating as a set of "stepping stones" that each member state will select from, shape to their context, and then arrange in a pathway that gets their food systems from where they are to where member states want them to be. Some people say to me, wow, 50-60 is a lot of solutions!  

Well, food systems cover multiple domains including: growing, producing, storing, transporting, processing, marketing, retailing, and preparing food and we are trying to have impacts on hunger, malnutrition, health, biodiversity, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, nature, livelihoods and resilience. Most DIY toolkits on the market have over 100 tools in them: 50 or 60 solution clusters to select from to transform food systems and align them to multiple outcomes seems positively restrained! 

How can we come up with the big moon-shots for food system transformation? I prefer to talk about pathways to food system transformation, pathways that will be different for each member state because there is no one size fits all.

How have we dealt with some controversy swirling around the Summit about who is engaged, especially businesses?  Very simply, we have tried to be as open, inclusive and transparent as we can. For example, every week (we are on week 20!) I send an update note out to 80 people in the AT1 Leadership Team (the majority of which are from member state groups) - and I’m sure they get sent on to another 200-300 people.  We must have conducted 100 + consultations just in AT1 alone.  We have tried to respond to every email, LinkedIn and Twitter contact we have received.  The AT Chairs decided at the outset not to include individual businesses in our leadership groups (for example in AT1, out of 80 people in the leadership team, there are 4 from SME networks and 2 from large business networks). 6 out of 80 seems modest, when we know it is the private sector, including farmers, that produces 99% of all food: they have to be at the table - accountable and not in control - or we are wasting time.
Finally, how to stay sane amid the deluge of exciting ideas and proposals, working at fast pace, and in full view? I try to focus on two things. First, we have an unprecedented opportunity to realise a generational shift  in the ability of food systems to better serve humanity - so let’s not waste it. Second, this can also be fun. One of the most valuable experiences has been meeting and working with people you don’t normally work with, thinking about things you don’t normally think about, and learning.  Whether it is about livestock insurance, valuations of soil health, or haematology in anaemia assessments, we are all learning – in ways that broaden our knowledge, not simply deepen it. 
None of this is easy. For example when we started, we in GAIN barely knew the significant players in farming, the environment movement, cool chain technology. Today we work with the Asian Farmers Association for Sustainable Rural Development, Nourishing Africa, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Cool Coalition, and dozens of other new partners to transform food value chains and systems to improve the wellbeing of people and planet. Many other organisations and people have had the same experience. Together we are changing the goals, norms and delivery approaches around SDG2 and other SDGs - for good. 
All of us involved in the Summit are contributing our time voluntarily because we care deeply about the outcomes that we think transformed food systems can deliver.  

Will we succeed? We are working very hard to ensure that. If we do not, it won’t be for lack of trying. Please join in!