Why the nutrition and food system Summits of 2021 need each other - and why nutrition needs them both


Geneva, 5 November 2020 - 

In 2021 we nutrition champions are blessed with not one, but two summits to advance nutrition outcomes. The UN Food Systems Summit (FSS) will take place in September in New York and the Nutrition for Growth Summit will be held in Tokyo in December. Each represents a tremendous opportunity to embed nutrition solutions into the great environmental and health challenges of our age, to engage a broad set of stakeholders, and to set an agenda for clear actions. 

The need is manifest. The world is off track to meet the World Health Assembly targets for all forms of malnutrition, hunger is rising, 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet (SOFI 2020), obesity continues its meteoric rise everywhere, and in 10 short months, COVID-19 threatens to undo 10 years of progress in reducing malnutrition by ramping up stunting and wasting, affecting tens of millions of children (Lancet July 2020).

We must make the most of these two summits by harnessing them to create irresistible momentum for nutrition improvement.  

Make no mistake, the two summits are different.  

The N4G is one of a series of quadrennial summits linked to the Olympics. Historically N4G has focused on raising (mostly financial) commitments to supporting nutrition from domestic sources, overseas development assistance and foundations and innovative financing mechanisms. For 2021, there has been a strong new element looking at how business investment and practices can contribute. It is organised by a host country government (Japan in 2021) and historically supported by the UK Government’s development ministry and large philanthropies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

The world is off track to meet the World Health Assembly targets for all forms of malnutrition, hunger is rising, 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet, obesity continues its meteoric rise everywhere, and in 10 short months, COVID-19 threatens to undo 10 years of progress in reducing malnutrition by ramping up stunting and wasting, affecting tens of millions of children.

The focus is on reducing malnutrition in all its forms.  Food systems represent one of five routes to improved nutrition (the others being nutrition interventions delivered via health systems, stronger financing and data for nutrition program scale up, a stronger focus on fragile and conflict-affected contexts and improved accountability mechanisms).  

Woman smiling in Surabaya market

Woman smiling in a market of Surabaya, Indonesia. © GAIN / Andrew Suryono

The FSS is a one-off event that sees transformed food systems as a way to advance the SDG 2030 agenda. It will do so by working on intertwined goals including: the reduction of hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, improved food safety, enhanced biodiversity, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reversing environmental degradation, reducing food loss and waste, stronger livelihoods, greater equity, improved resilience and reduced vulnerability. The FSS is convened by the United Nations Secretary-General.

It includes UN member states and is supported by working groups on each of the five themes (known as Action Tracks), an independent Science Group, and a large group of designated Champions. Critically, the FSS aims to reach out to those whose voices are not normally heard and is profiled as a ‘People’s Summit’ that will engage a broad range of grassroots stakeholders, including through a series of dialogues in all countries.  

While the N4G is a time-bound campaign to deliver more money for nutrition programmes and more nutrition outcomes for the money spent through stronger programmes, the FSS seeks to define game-changing solutions and actions that can put food systems on a 10-year pathway towards achieving the SDGs in 2030 - those on not only nutrition but also environmental sustainability, climate change and livelihoods. 

Surprisingly, not that many stakeholders are significantly involved in both summits. This speaks to their complementarity, so long as we avoid any unhealthy duels between the two summits and instead focus on their synergistic duality, which can have multiplier effects for improving nutrition outcomes.  

The communities behind each summit have much to gain from an improved "docking" of these two summits. 

The N4G should view the FSS as an alliance match-making service. You want to find organisations, networks and people who are potentially interested in nutrition? The FSS is an entry point. By forging such connections, N4G stakeholders can grow the movement of people and organisations that care about nutrition. A focus on healthy diets is a way to reduce malnutrition in all its forms, but also a way to help reduce greenhouse gas emission, promote biodiversity, support livelihoods and increase resilience - all of which may have longer-term positive effects on public health and nutrition.

The constituency motivated by addressing all of these goals is far larger than that for improving nutrition alone - so the FSS introduces elements of a mutually beneficial movement to N4G. Why does the FSS benefit from the N4G? Stronger health systems are a necessary precondition for improving nutrition in the longer-term - but will not be a strong focus of the FSS. The N4G can help food system stakeholders forge closer links with health systems to, for example, embed food system actions within COVID-19 response and prevention strategies and funding. 

While the FSS aims for transformation, changing structures, and game-changing solutions, the N4G seeks to maintain support and scale up proven actions within existing systems. Both are needed, so this makes them ideally complementary, de-risking one another’s approaches while filling mutually beneficial gaps.

They can be a duet of complementary, interconnected and interdependent voices raising awareness of the need to transform food systems to improve nutrition while motivating serious commitments to make that a reality. 

There is thus no zero-sum game if we make the two summits "dockable". How do we line them up to do that?  An obvious potential docking point is overlaying the foods systems commitments of the N4G on the FSS Action Tracks 1 (ensuring access to nutritious safe food for all) and 2 (sustainable shifts in food production and consumption) -either to avoid duplication or to ensure sufficient resources for shared commitments and actions. For example, within the finance area, the FSS’s Finance for Food Systems Network and Nutritious Food Financing Alliance can be very complementary with the N4G’s Nutrition Investor Coalition as they reach different types of investors.

In terms of data infrastructure, the Global Nutrition Report from N4G and the Food Systems Dashboard can complement each other by linking nutrition and diet outcomes to indicators of food system performance. Finally, accountability frameworks tracking commitments across the five FSS Action Tracks, such as a proposed Countdown to 2030 report, can become interoperable with the N4G Nutrition Accountability Framework run by the Global Nutrition Report (GNR) with support from Access to Nutrition Index (ATNI) and other organisations.

It is clear that the two summits share goals and each can help the other to achieve them. They can be a duet of complementary, interconnected and interdependent voices raising awareness of the need to transform food systems to improve nutrition while motivating serious commitments to make that a reality. In short, the two summits of 2021 need each other - and nutrition needs them both.

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