– Dubbed ‘the People’s Summit, the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) hopes to put the world back on a path to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, through food systems overhauling. From the tempered to the extremely optimistic, experts in various food system sectors share their expectations of transformation.
The world has been lagging on ambitious climate, biodiversity and sustainable development goals, but the UNFSS is hoping that commitments to transform global food systems will get the world back on track to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
The inaugural UNFSS will take place virtually during the UN General Assembly High-Level Week, under the leadership of UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
It promises to bring together the public and private sectors, non-governmental organisations, farmers groups, indigenous leaders, youth representatives and researchers to outline a clear path to ensure that the world’s food production and distribution are safe, healthy, sustainable and equitable.
Learning from the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, the summit also hopes to make food production and distribution more resilient to vulnerabilities, stress and shocks.
Experts in sustainability and various food system sectors have been speaking about their expectations and hopes for a summit that is built on solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues such as land degradation, inequality, rising hunger, and obesity.
Panellists at a Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) ‘Fixing the Business of Food’ webinar held on September 16, 2021, were asked how optimistic they were, on a scale of 1 to 10, of real food systems transformation in the next 12 months, triggered by the private sector.
“I am going to give a full 10,” said Viktoria de Bourbon de Parme, Head of Food Processing at the World Benchmarking Alliance. “I am super optimistic,” she added. “I think we are there. Momentum is there, and it is going to happen.”
Executive Director of Food and Nature at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development Diane Holdorf is similarly optimistic.
“I would say an 8 out of 10, but I do have to preface this by saying that systems change is complex. With individual leading companies demonstrating what is possible and bringing others along, we are going to see for sure actual system changes,” she said.
Not all experts are optimistic that the UNFSS will bring about the urgent changes required for food systems transformation.
IPS spoke with Million Belay, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) head, about his expectations for the summit.
Belay, who is also an advisory board member for BCFN and a food systems researcher, said that he and alliance members disagree with the summit’s agenda and structure. The alliance represents farmers, pastoralists, hunter/gatherers, faith-based organisations, indigenous peoples and women’s groups,
“The pre-summit has happened in Rome. During that presummit, we had our own summit, organised by civil society mechanisms, and it was clear that farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous people, local groups, and women’s organisations were all saying no, the UNFFS summit does not represent us. There is no reason to be part of that,” Belay said.
Belay believes that the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) should have been responsible for organising the Summit.
“This is a space where the civil society in general and the civil society mechanism and governments come together to negotiate about food-related issues, so the agenda should have been set there,” he said, adding that, “the UNFSS has set up a scientific body as part of the structure, but we already have a scientific body in the CFS, that is called the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. It is a scientific body, and you can say that we need to beef up this body, but they have established a totally different scientific body.”
While expectations from the summit differ, the experts are unanimous in their view that the world is in urgent need of radical change in how food is grown, sold and distributed to tackle food insecurity, land degradation and rising poverty.
“(The Summit) is one step on a very, very long journey. Perhaps more than ever, as the UN General Assembly opens, we feel the weight and burdens of non-sustainability in the world,” said Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.
Sachs says the transformation to sustainable development will demand deep energy and fiscal policy change.
With land-use accounting for about 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and ensuing issues like deforestation and loss of habitat, he is calling for fundamental change in land-use policies across the globe, adding that current, unsustainable use is a ‘massive contributor to crises the board.’
Another aspect of the complex global food system that requires urgent attention is the need for healthy diets.
“About half the world does not have a healthy diet. Of the 8 billion people on the planet, roughly 1 billion live in extreme hunger. Another 2 billion live with one or more micronutrient deficiencies, anaemia, vitamin deficiencies or omega-three fatty acid deficiencies, which are absolutely debilitating for health. Another billion people are obese,” Sachs said.
This week’s UNFSS hopes to get commitments from governments, the private sector, farmers and indigenous groups to work together and change global food production and consumption.
By tackling the food crisis, organisers hope to address the climate, biodiversity, and hunger crises.