Bite the Talk Episode 18 : UNFSS Stocktaking Series - Introduction

Mark Gachagua: Welcome to this episode of Bite the Talk. We are taking stock! The 2023 United Nations Food Systems Stock Taking moment in Rome, follows the transformative 2021 United Nations Food System Summit, or the UNFSS, enabling countries to report on the progress towards the 2030 agenda for sustainable development in the midst of a changing and challenging global context. I'm your host, Mark Gachagua and today we are speaking to Dr. Lawrence Haddad, GAIN’s Executive Director. 

Lawrence chaired action track one at the United Nations Food System Summit to ensure access to safe and nutritious foods for all. Lawrence, welcome and thank you for joining us. 

Lawrence Haddad: My pleasure to be with you, Mark. Thank you. 

Mark Gachagua: Good. Now, your day-to-day role is as GAIN’s Executive Director but in 2021 you actually wore a different hat. You led the action truck one at the United Nations food systems Summit and who better to help us rewind and look back at where we started. Could you remind us, how the United Nations food system which came about? 

Lawrence Haddad: Yeah, Mark, I mean, back in 2019, the UN. Secretary General decided to convene a food system summit, a UN Food System Summit. 

So, the goals of the of the summit were to do three things, really raise awareness about the importance of food systems and why people should care about them. You know people from all walks of life, not just experts. The second thing was to identify a set of really tangible actions that were investable from the public sector and the private sector that would change food systems. And the third thing was really to get everyone out of this head space of you know, we working on this sector only whether it's agriculture, environment, or health, and to sort of get everyone thinking, well, we're all working on different parts of the beast. So, let's work together. By working together, we can advance the individual goals and the nexus of goals if you like. 

I think that the summit generated two big things. I think it did shift the mindset of so many people in government, in business, in research and civil society, towards thinking about food as a system from production through to consumption, from global through down to local, from public through to private. And I think it also generated very tangibly 120 countries generated food system transformation pathways. This is a statement of intent from the government that says this is what our food system looks like. Now, this is what we want it to look like in 2030. And this is how we're going to get from where we are now to where we want to be. And I think the big challenge post summit on that was to go from plan really to action. And so, what's happened since the summit is just that everyone's been working to figure out how do we convert these plans into actions and so gain again through its five-year multi donor funded program called Nourishing Food Pathways. We've been actively supporting governments across Africa and Asia to do just that. 

Mark Gachagua: Thank you, Lawrence. that is a wonderful background. And just connecting to that, we've had so many summits around the world. What made this summit different from the rest? Why was it so important? And would you say it was a people's summit? 

Lawrence Haddad: Well, this the summit certainly came at a good point in time. I mean it was in the middle of COVID. And so it was, you know, COVID disrupted food systems incredibly as well as you know, taking lots of life and run ruining people's lives. But it resulted in lots of food price spikes, lots of, you know, surplus of food in one area and a dearth of food in another area. It really generated havoc in food systems. And so, in a way, the summit was in the right place at the right time. But it’s really the summit was really hastened, in the first place by the relentless march of climate change and climate change is just you know, just completely changing the way farming happens. Farming is already highly volatile, highly uncertain business, but climate change is just changing everything in terms of heat patterns and drought patterns and rainfall patterns and pesticide and sorry pest patterns. And you know, everything was just being thrown up in the air, making farming even more difficult and unpredictable. 

And so how do we fix that? Well, we can't just look at farming to fix that. You have to look at the whole food system. How can the whole food system insulate farmers from these kinds of shocks and consumers from this kind of a shocks? So, the timing was good, but you know, even though it was called by the UN Secretary General and even though the UN agencies are ultimately responsible for the follow up. A really big role was given to civil society. 

The dialogues were the real push and support for dialogues on food systems, and in many countries. The action track leads were all civil society organisations. 

And this allowed the inclusion of marginalised voices, people and organisations that don't get to have a say in what food systems look like. They don't get a seat at the table and then it also helped generate solutions from unusual places. So, in in the action track one that GAIN led on ensuring access to healthy foods for all, we had over a hundred organisations engaged in our action track on a weekly basis. The other action tracks had similar numbers. There were over 1,500 dialogues across most countries involving over 100,000 participants. So, I think the action tracks and the dialogues were unusual for a UN summit, which is usually just about Member States, and UN agencies, and the rest of us are invited to be in the audience. But here we were very much part of the process.  

I think it was a people summit certainly, relative to the previous summits that have come before it. I think there were lessons learned about what to do better next time. I think, still, even though we had 1,500 dialogues it was still certain groups that, you know, found it easier to get access to the Internet, found it easier to get to dialogue in English. So, I think inevitably the process wasn't as inclusive as we would have liked, but compared to previous processes, it was light years ahead, it seemed to me. 

Mark Gachagua: Yeah, I mean 1,500 dialogues is no joke, and that that shows the effort that was put in trying to make the summit as inclusive as possible. Lawrence, looking back,  and from your perspective, what has happened since the United Nations Food System Summit. It's almost 2 years now. Do you think it is important to have these stock taking moment which would be taking place in in July? 

Lawrence Haddad: I do think it's important to have a stock take. I think it's been challenging for the food system community the last two years. Of course, the last two years have been challenging for the world's most vulnerable, hungry, and malnourished people, because not only is there this constant drumbeat of climate change which is getting louder and louder. Not only has there been COVID-19, there has been this war in Europe, and has been completely disrupting flows of grain, flows of fertiliser, finance, interest rates and you name it. It's been hugely disruptive. 

And these prices have diverted attention away from food systems and has given governments excuses not to do things that we know are going to be good for healthy diets, has given them excuses to put aside for now net zero targets. But I think that's a shame, because -and I think it's ultimately counterproductive- because we need action on both fronts. You need action to mitigate the immediate consequences. The immediate crisis. But you can't forget about the underlying context, the underlying food systems, the underlying fragility of food systems that has exacerbated these crises. In the first place, look at the Ukraine crisis. The Ukraine crisis is in part a crisis for food because there are so few bread baskets around the world. Europe and Africa in particular, is way too dependent on food production in Ukraine and Russia. 

We should be having bread baskets all over the world. Many of them should be in Africa. So, I think it's the fragility of our food systems that is exacerbated the impacts of these shocks on the most vulnerable and so the crisis crises need to be responded to. But one of the responses is to make food systems more resilient. 

I think also, Mark, you know what a stock takes about? a stock take is an interesting word. It's kind of a quaint word. It always makes me think of - let's go to the cupboard and see what's in the cupboard. I'm going to take stock of my stock, right? I'm going to look at it. 

But the stock take is important because it refocuses the minds of busy policymakers, development agencies, and civil society groups that are that are, you know, distracted by the crises. But it also, you know, when you take stock of something you're looking in your cupboard. You're looking, you know, to the cupboard to say what foods, what things do I have in there? How, well stocked am I? Do I have duplicates of this? And do I have stuff that I'm missing. And ultimately, I need to get more organised. I need to get these cupboards more organised, and I think the stock take is going to do all of those things. It's going to say, well, how well are we doing in supporting governments to implement their pathways? Are we duplicating efforts? Are too many organisations going to too few countries? Are we wasting efforts? Are there things people are doing over here that we could be building on and doing over there? And what's missing? Which countries are missing? Which action areas are missing? Which outcomes are missing? Which communities are missing? 

So I think the summit will help us do all of that, and I think it will reduce the burden on the countries, because I think some countries are being overwhelmed with offers of support and some countries are being underwhelmed with offers of support. So, I think it will really help the national convenors, Mark, and the national convenors, as you know, are absolutely crucial to this whole effort. 

Mark Gachagua: Yeah, that. Yeah. I agree with you Lawrence, because, personally, I have worked as a stock taker. So, your illustration about going back to the cupboard and checking what is happening, you know, so to speak, will help governments and also stakeholders to, for example, learn the best practices and how that could help them moving forward. Also in connection to what you had mentioned earlier, it definitely feels like we are in a permacrisis, still living with the legacy of COVID-19, climate shocks, global conflicts, such as the Russian Ukrainian war, and it is affecting so many. From your perspective, can we expect food systems to be a priority for governments moving forward? 

Lawrence Haddad: You know, I think, for some countries they will be priorities, because some countries are still heavily dependent on food systems for jobs, for taxes, for income generation. Countries in Europe, and not so much dependent on those systems. But countries in Africa and Asia are very dependent. So, I think food systems are very present whether they have the capacity and the head space to sort of focus on the medium term and the long run-in addition to dealing with all the crises and firefighting all the time, is the question, and you know, you can't just be in firefighting mode all the time. To use another analogy, you have to worry about the building codes. You have to make sure the buildings are built in a fire-resistant way; you have to make sure there are in terms of wildfires You have to make sure that there are fire breaks in your forests. You have to make sure your fire department is well equipped with the right training and the right equipment. So, you can't just focus on the short term all the time. And I think what we need to do is move from this sense of permacrisis to actually say, this is the new normal for the next 15 to 20 years. This is normal. We are going to be in a volatile shock, prone world and we just need to get used to it and mitigate as much as we can the generation of these shocks, and certainly mitigate the impact of these shocks. And the way to do that, I think, is to embrace diversity. You know, diversity is the insulator against shocks that are. It's the thing we can do to protect ourselves. It's our insurance policy.  

So, what do I mean by diversity? I go back to the Ukraine example.  

Diversity in where we grow food, we've relied for too long on very long supply chains and value chains. I think we need a much better blend of long, medium, and short run, in terms of geography, in spatial distance supply chains and value chains. We need diversity in the kinds of crops that are grown, the kinds of foods that are grown. There are tens of thousands of crops that we could grow for domestic consumption, but we're heavily reliant on 8 to 10 of them for 60 or 70% of the world's the calories. That's asking for trouble. 

So, more diversity of foods, looking at more neglected and underutilised species that can be grown locally are readily available, are inexpensive, and actually don't put a big strain on the environment and promote biodiversity.  

Diversity in the kinds of energy that are used to produce those foods still very heavily reliant on fossil fuels to generate food in agriculture systems.  

Diversity in the kinds of things that people eat. We know that a diverse diet is going to be a healthy diet. And yet too many kids, 80% of kids in Africa, Latin America and Asia don't even have a minimum diversity. So, we need to promote campaigns that talk about how you need to have more colours of food on the plates.  

Nutrition can be a highly technical science. But ultimately, It's quite basic. At a basic level. A greater diversity of foods is, we know it's healthy. That's a healthy diet. So, a greater diversity of greater diversity within fruit systems is absolutely key to becoming not comfortable, because we can never be comfortable with this level of uncertainty and shocks, but to be able to live with and move through this new state of call it permacrisis, call it constant shocks. But that's what we have to reconcile ourselves to in the next 20 years and deal with it. 

Mark Gachagua: Yeah, I agree with you. Lawrence. It's important to, you know wake up to the reality and adopt and mitigate the shocks that we come across. Now, shifting gears a bit, GAIN works with the youth and recognises their capacity to influence change. And that's a very, very wonderful thing. I was just wondering from your perspective, how important is it for youth to be involved in the 2023 United Nations food systems stock taking moments and also the 2030 agenda for sustainable development? 

Lawrence Haddad: Thank you, Mark. I hope, Mark, that we don't have to ask this question for much longer, really, because I think its self-evident. It's almost like saying, do you think it's important that we ask that we involve women in this debate? We would never think of asking that question. And I think we need to start doing the same about youth because they're absolutely central to all of this. The decisions that are being made now affect them more than anyone else, right? Because they're going to be around for longer than anyone else and yet their voices are often not invited, and if they are invited, they're not taken too seriously, and if they are taken seriously, it's not very clear if they have much influence over the decisions.  

So, I very much hope that we don't have to ask this question in the future. It's a given. Think about it. It's not just an equity or a rights issue that they have a right to be included. It's not just that. They have insights that people in my generation just don't have. They've got tools and approaches. they use that people in my generation just don't use. So, even if you think it's not kind of intrinsically the right thing to do, instrumentally, it's the right thing to do. But of course, it's right for both of those reasons. So, absolutely they have to be included. If they're not, we are, we're failing. 

Mark Gachagua: Oh, yeah, totally. I agree with you, Lawrence. The youth usually say nothing for us without us. I like the fact that you are on the fore front in promoting youth engagement, and for that matter, meaningful youth engagement. How do you think we can build a more nature-based solution to building healthy food systems? Across countries around the world? 

Lawrence Haddad: That's a big question Mark, and I think the first thing is for organisations that don't consider themselves to be nature focused to become nature focused. And we at GAIN, I think 5 years ago we weren't nearly as cognisant of our obligation to nature and our impact on nature as we should have been 5 years ago. The Food System Summit was a real wake-up call actually, for many of us at GAIN, me included. So, I think the first thing is to recognise the obligation.  

Second thing is to recognise the opportunities that we have. I mean, GAIN works on food, loss and food waste. We can do that from a nutrition perspective. We can also do that from an environmental perspective. And you know, Nirvana is doing it from both. We can focus on food loss and food waste that have high nutrient values. We can also do it with foods that have high emission content. And if we can somehow combine to do it on foods that have high nutrient and low emissions, then we're at the nexus of advancing those two things at the same time.  

Same with healthy diets. 

Healthy diets look different in different places. So, everyone has a different challenge. In Africa, the consumption of animal source food is only going to increase, right? So, we have to figure out for people already consuming lots of animal source foods in Africa for health reasons, we want to modify that. But for those consuming low levels of animal source foods who have high nutrient requirements like young kids and adolescent girls, they probably want to, and UNICEF would recommend that, they have more animal source foods. But how do we do that in a way that minimises the environmental consequences. So, I think, you know, by bringing together the environment and nutrition we're not doing it just to do environment favour.  

We're doing it to actually, maybe we can actually advance nutrition even faster than we could if we ignored environment. So, I think the risk is you dilute your focus. The opportunity is that you accelerate your goals, your primary goal, nutrition, which it will be for GAIN, but also your supplementary complementary goals like environment.  

So, I think you know, open up your mind, look for opportunities and try to bring other communities together. So, it's all very off again. Say, we're going to do it. But we've got to convince our partners to do. We've got to convince our donors to do it. 

We've got to convince governments to do it very often. One of my best moments at COP 27 was being on stage with the Bangladeshi delegation, and we had the Minister of Environment of and the Minister of Health together, pretty much for the first time, I think, at COP and that was really exciting. And we look to governments like Bangladesh, real trail blazers in bringing environment, health, and food together.  

So, those are the 3 things. Mark: open up your mind like us, identify the opportunities, bring your partners with you, and then I guess finally, you know, align your organisation.  

We at GAIN have had to hire and are very happy to hire people with expertise in environment. We have had to change the way we measure our success; we have changed the way we design our programs. So, it's not enough to say when you want to bring these two things together, you actually have to change your organisation to make sure you can. 

Mark Gachagua: Very insightful Lawrence. Definitely, there are benefits to being nature focused and also being cognisant of the environment. How does the United Nations food system summit and this stock take and the entire ecosystem around it, how will it support governments to adopt a healthy food system from where you sit, how do you see that working out? 

Lawrence Haddad: Well, you know, everything we do again is to support national food systems, to move towards healthy diets for more sustainable food processes. So, for example, we've been working with at least 6 of the governments where we have a big presence on the ground to prepare their voluntary progress reports for the summit. We have been working with 8 of our 10 governments. We work with on routine basis. We're working with 8 of them to help them map their food systems with data at the subnational level. So, you know, these are early wins for us in terms of what we're doing. But we're also working with lots of partners to map budgets.  

Our governments don't know what they're spending on food systems, and they don't know where their attention is going. They know what they're spending on agriculture, and they know what they're spending on health. They know what they're spending on environment, but which parts of those are allocated to the food system they don't really know. So, working with various partners to map budgets. So, we we're doing lots of stuff at the subnational and national level. We're bringing in new voices, marginalised voices into the process of implementation of food systems. We are making sure that the very poorest do not get excluded from food system and food systems.  

You've got to work hard to make food systems really work positively for those living on less than $2 to $3 a day. We're doing that. We're making sure those people are not excluded, and I think at the centre of all of this is the national, the country focal points for food systems. These are the national food system convenors. That's what they're called. And they're really central to the success of this whole agenda, their high-level government officials and they have been given a really tough job. They've been asked to move from plan to action and they've been asked to make sure that that process is highly participatory both within government but also across stakeholders in society. And that's a tough job and they need support, and I think that's why so many of the future episodes of this podcast will focus on the role of these national convenors, and how they can bring about change at the country level, and how we can support them at GAIN.  

But you know other organisations that are in this so-called ecosystem support, we need to make sure we really focus on them. I've seen this too often that we say, we're focusing on supporting these kinds of convenings but in the end we end up supporting global processes. Global processes are important, but they're just a means to an end. The national and subnational processes are what drive change. And so, we need to stay relentlessly focused on them and on supporting them in a really respectful, dignified, and a very humble way. 

Mark Gachagua: Yes, Lawrence, you know, going back to what you said about evidence, and also the technical support that GAIN offers is quite needed and quite relevant. So yeah, that is quite important, and I like the fact that you mentioned the hard work that that the national convenors do and later in this series, we are going to focus on the important coordination role that national convenors have in bringing about the change at country level in the different countries where they work. 

Lawrence, how can we implement a pathway to healthy diets for all? Now focusing on the regional level. You've talked about the subnational level, you've talked about the national level. Do you think this something which can be done at the regional level? 

Lawrence Haddad: I think it can. I think it's really because food systems involve trade. Of course, they involve trade across boundaries, they involve information flows across boundaries, they involve learnings across boundaries. So, I think the more we can do that the better. I think we have to be careful not to do regional for regionalism's sake. I think we have to make sure that there's a there's a real value out to doing it, but I don't think it's hard to find the value add either, and I certainly think with Africa's recent free trade arrangements within the continent, across the 55 countries, I think that's a massive opportunity for diversifying food systems in a way that makes sense at a regional level. So, I'd like to see a lot more within Africa trade. I think, that can really avoid the bottlenecks we saw during COVID and in the aftermath of the ongoing Ukraine crisis.  

So yes, I'm all for it, but in many instances that I've seen regionalism, I see it as a unnecessary bureaucratic layer. If we can make it really about the substance and the content, about really changing the way we do business and think about business, then then that's good. If it's mindless bureaucratic coordination, and I'm against it. So, it's a double edged sword. It can be very like most things, it can be very positive, but it has its downsides, and we just have to be very intentional about how we do it. 

Mark Gachagua: Yeah, definitely. Lawrence, I also agree that the regional work that should be done or could be done, should be more collaborative and focus on strengthening the food systems that we currently have. Lawrence. thank you for your invaluable insight, this significant contribution you've made in enhancing our understanding of the United Nations Food System Summit and also the stock taking moment. 

Lawrence Haddad: Thank you. Mark, it was a pleasure talking to you today. 

Mark Gachagua: Thank you for joining us, and we look forward to having you with us again in the next episode, where we will be hearing what it is actually like to coordinate the process at the national level. Until then, take care and keep making a difference.