The UN Food Systems Summit: Changing the Food Landscape for Good on 23rd September?

Geneva, 16 September 2021 - 

After a year of planning, the UN Food Systems Summit is just days away. A catalyst for an extraordinary outpouring of energy and creativity over these past 12 months - hundreds of thousands of people from governments, civil society, business, and development agencies have participated in the preparations. They have  focused on solutions that can transform the choices we all make about food; the why, what, where, who, when and how of growing, processing, marketing, trading, preparing, and consuming it. 

Perhaps the most enduring achievement of the Summit process will be the shifts in attitudes that have taken place which have unleashed and channelled all of this energy. We are leaving behind the comfortable assumption that we can deal separately with the issues of hunger, health, climate change, environment, and livelihoods. We cannot. They are inextricably intertwined. One blind step forward in one outcome may lead to two unintended steps backwards in another. This is a powerful shift. It means governments, UN agencies, businesses - and civil society organisations such as GAIN - need to adjust mission statements, organise themselves differently, assemble different teams, work with different partners, and work to different metrics.  

Here are two examples. The new Zero Hunger Coalition: this aligns multiple governments and companies as partners to reduce hunger and double farmer incomes but also to do this within the Paris Climate Agreement targets. The Coalition on Healthy Diets Coalition from Sustainable Food Systems is another example of this indivisibility of goals. It would be a short term hollow victory to improve the quality of diets while undermining nature’s ability to do the same for future generations. We must avoid this. For its own part, GAIN will take environmental concerns much more seriously than before the Summit. We want to be an exemplar on how to be a green nutrition machine. 

The second important shift is that we need to dig deep to transform food systems. Different policies, practices and resource allocations are needed. It is not as if we don’t know what to do, or how to do it. But change is resisted either because the incentives are not there to make it happen, or the vested interests are just too strong and can block change. Perhaps the most fundamental incentive shift that needs to happen is in how we assess different food choices. The economics of food is driven by prices that do not account for the full positive and negative consequences of different food choices. In a world where food producers, processors, marketers and consumers are not sufficiently rewarded for choices that are good for people and planet, the results are predictable: food systems that leave 1 person in 3 malnourished, make us more vulnerable to future animal to human disease outbreaks such as COVID-19 and make us much more likely to exceed rather than live within the Paris Climate Agreement limits. A promising initiative is the True Value of Food Initiative, bringing together the different groups working on these issues, including GAIN, to develop some significant examples of how choices can be so influenced, such as a city food procurement policy being based on true benefits and costs of food choices rather than the market based ones.  

Four hands sorting out peas in baskets

We need to dig deep to transform food systems. Different policies, practices and resource allocations are needed. It is not as if we don’t know what to do, or how to do it. © GAIN / Michael Goima

The third important shift is the mobilisation of a tremendous amount of pent up energy to transform food systems. For example, 140 countries have held food system dialogues in the past year.  60 national food system pathways emerging from those dialogues will be presented at the Summit with many more in preparation. The Summit workstreams have received thousands of ideas for change. The Act4Food Act4Change youth pledge, led by youth from all over the world, supported by many agencies, will receive 60,000 individual pledges for food system change and has inspired a Food is the Future event on September 22. Perhaps the most unlikely catalytic example is the Private Sector Pledge for Zero Hunger, which amplifies the role in the private sector can play by aligning their operations and investments in well defined science based actions in countries and regions where hunger is the highest (find out more at this event on September 21). To its great credit, the Summit has catalysed these surges in energy from all quarters.

Fourth, science is having its day. The sheer amount of evidence being generated and assembled on how food choices affect human and planetary health has brought a new focus to the debates that are shaping national and global plans. This is a key step forward. As evidence has driven the climate campaign, it will increasingly shape the food campaign. It would be great to have an IPCC for food!

The challenge now is to keep things going across other key Summit pledging moments this year. There will be a Food Day at COP 26 to take the food systems messages to climate audiences and decision makers. Initiatives from the Summit will be taken to the Nutrition for Growth Summit such as the Wasting Reset (how to catalyse a step change in how the world addresses under 5 wasting), and the Anaemia Alliance (a group of countries and agencies dedicated to bringing health, food and environmental systems together with science and the women’s empowerment movement to address this debilitating condition that affects women disproportionately-link to Summit game changer description in wave 2).

So where does this leave us?

Will these mindset shifts result in new, bold and transformational commitments from governments, donors, agencies civil society and businesses at the UN Food System Summit on September 23? I hope so. But even if they do not, the die has been cast: we can’t go back. The commitments made at or after the Summit will be expected to be transformational - the world has raised its standards dramatically when it comes to food systems change. There will much less patience for half-hearted change, thanks to the Summit process. 

Whether the commitments are bold or not, those making them and those counting on them should be assured that there will accountability measures in place to identify and celebrate progress and help accelerate it where it is flagging. In 2020, GAIN and Johns Hopkins University initiated an independent Food Systems Countdown 2030 Report is an annual assessment that will monitor progress in food system outcomes and inputs. A description of the Report will be published in October in the journal Food Policy.  A complement to this could be the Accountability Pact, led by Boyd Swinburn, signed by individual experts (me included) which will track key commitments made at the UNFSS commitment register. 

Projections do not write the future. We do. We can create a future where food systems are the solution, not the problem. 

Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director, GAIN

People often ask me "are you happy that you and GAIN put so much energy into the UNFSS over the past year?". My answer is an absolute yes. Why? First, because of the urgency of the moment. COVID-19, climate change and conflict are driving all the indicators in the wrong direction and at an accelerating pace. All of us have to be part of the change we want to see and the Summit provides a once in a generation platform to amplify the urgency and develop the solutions, while bringing decision makers to the table. Second, we have learned so much about the linkages, trade-offs and synergies inherent in the food system - at a conceptual level, yes, but more critically at a practical and policy level. We are better equipped to treat the food system outcomes as indivisible. Finally, we have met new partners from different communities from who we can learn and with whom we can be much more effective, together.  

And make no mistake, we all need to be more effective. The future is looking uncertain at present, leading some bleak projections. But projections do not write the future. We do. We can create a future where food systems are the solution, not the problem. To do so we need to make the right food choices, from soil health to gut health. And we have to trust young people to be a significant part of the collective decision making process - food choices will affect their futures the most.  

If past food choices have gotten us to where are today, future food choices can get us to where we want to be; but only if we are bold, systemic, and address all outcomes simultaneously and with the utmost urgency. That is the biggest mindset shift of all and will surely the key legacy of the UN Food Systems Summit, its leader, Special Envoy Dr. Agnes Kalibata, and the UN Secretary General who championed and set the new course. Brava!