UN summit seeks to shape a food system fit for the future

By Megan Rowling, Thomson Reuters Foundation | August 3, 2021

People don’t agree on much when it comes to food. But most think how we produce it isn’t working for everyone on the planet, nor for crucial natural systems vital to food production, including soils, water and the climate.

In response, an upcoming UN summit on food systems aims to curb damage to the environment and wildlife from what’s on our plates, as well as tackle hunger made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-heating emissions from agriculture and food waste.

Preparations for September’s event, due to take place in New York, have already brought together governments, farmers, indigenous people, businesses, UN agencies and others to discuss ways of making food production fitter for the future.

A three-day meeting in Rome last week distilled some of the more than 2,000 ideas that have emerged from a series of dialogues around the world into a set of themes and coalitions that the summit will endorse, to then be taken forward at a practical level.

At the closing session, Britain’s Prince Charles said the summit process showed the world was responding to try and fix the damage done by failing food systems — but warned that action needed to happen fast.

“The security and capacity of our planet’s entire life-support systems are banking on it, and if we all work with that primary responsibility to the fore, not only will we benefit nature, we will benefit people and the planet too,” he said by video.

Will the summit produce the equivalent of a Paris Agreement for food?

There will be no negotiated agreement with legal force at the end of the summit. Instead the gathering will discuss how to shift to greener, healthier and fairer food systems, and how to fund and implement policies and measures to do that at national and local levels.

Officials and researchers say one of the key goals of the first Food Systems Summit is to put the issue firmly on the global political agenda.

“That, itself, is already a success,” Gilbert Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), one of the agencies convening the event, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ed Davey of the Food and Land Use Coalition said the summit will launch new international alliances on things like cutting emissions from food production to net-zero and slashing food loss and waste – and could help generate new funding.

“I do hope it marks some kind of turning point, bringing global attention and action in addressing food system problems,” he said.

What problems is the summit trying to solve?

In July, UN agencies said 2020 saw a dramatic worsening of world hunger, much of it related to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a report, they estimated that about a tenth of the planet’s population — up to 811 million people — were undernourished last year. A huge effort will be needed to meet a global goal to end hunger by 2030, they said.

In Rome, David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme, reminded participants that a child dies from hunger about every five seconds, adding “we shall not sit idly by as children die”.

Meanwhile, whether on small farms in Kenya or in American families’ homes, about a third of all food produced is lost or wasted each year, costing the global economy nearly $1 trillion annually.

Chemical-heavy agriculture is blamed for polluting soils, rivers and seas — and farming alone sucks up about 70% of the world’s freshwater supply.

The way we produce food is also responsible for about a third of the greenhouse gases heating up the Earth’s climate.

Those are emitted in a range of ways: as carbon-storing forests are cleared for farms, goods are transported around the world in fossil-fuel-guzzling ships, planes and trucks, and as cattle and other animals belch out heat-trapping methane, for instance.

Large-scale farming practices such as tilling are destroying soils and turning the land into carbon sources, not carbon sinks. Image: Unsplash.

How can we do things differently?

That’s the daunting question the summit has set out to try and address.

In the run-up, more than 145 governments are holding national dialogues to collect potential ideas, from Argentina to Ireland and Nigeria, with tens of thousands of people having already taken part. Hundreds of independently organised discussions have also contributed to the process.

The most promising plans are being gathered under five “action tracks”: giving everyone access to nutritious food; moving towards healthier and safer diets; using fewer natural resources; enabling small farmers to earn a decent living; and making food systems better able to withstand shocks and stresses.

One idea, according to IFAD’s Houngbo, is to expand school feeding programmes so that all children get at least one good meal a day.

While many such programmes already exist in countries like Kenya, they could be improved by buying food grown nearby to support local farmers and communities, he said.

Other options on the table include working toward deforestation-free supply chains, redirecting environmentally harmful subsidies to greener food production, and including the cost of a healthy diet when calculating poverty thresholds.

Those selected will be taken forward by international coalitions on themes including school meals, agro-ecology and decent work, bringing together governments, businesses, farmers, youth and other groups. Countries will also come up with national pathways adapted to their needs.

Who gets to decide what solutions the summit picks?

This is controversial. More than 300 grassroots organisations representing small-scale food producers, researchers and indigenous peoples are boycotting the summit and put on their own meeting alongside this week’s official “pre-summit”.

They say the summit is disproportionately influenced by corporations, and lacks transparency and accountability.

They said in a statement that the summit is backing “false solutions” to the hunger, ecological and climate crises, such as voluntary corporate sustainability schemes and “risky technologies” including genetically modified organisms.

“Our main problem with the summit is that… it creates preferential access to the corporate sector and agribusiness, and since the beginning (they) have been setting the agenda, dominating the debate, and are leading on the solutions,” said Alberta Guerra, senior food policy advisor for ActionAid.

Instead, the groups want binding rules to stop corporate abuses of human and land rights, an end to pesticide use and prioritisation of agro-ecology rooted in natural farming methods.

U.N. officials have pushed back hard against the criticisms, emphasising the inclusive nature of the process to source proposals on how to transform global food systems.

At the Rome meeting, groups ranging from organic farmers to indigenous peoples, youth and small businesses called for a central role in decision-making, as well as funding and other support.

IFAD’s Houngbo said one key question would be how the summit can help the world’s 500 million small-scale farmers, who produce about a third of the planet’s food and as much as 80% of supply in parts of Africa and Asia.

They need practical help – access to finance, a fairer share of revenues from food production, ways to adapt to climate change and social programmes to help protect them from shocks like the pandemic, he said.

Elizabeth Nsimadala, president of the Pan-African Farmers’ Organization and the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation, told the pre-summit gathering in Rome that small-scale farmers are expecting “equity” and “dignity” from a more sustainable food system, as well as a fair share of the benefits.

Houngbo told the closing session the solutions backed at September’s summit should be rolled out on the ground as quickly as possible.

“Let’s keep in mind that it is an emergency situation,” he emphasised.

Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.

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