EXPLAINER: U.N. summit seeks to shape a food system fit for the future

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 23 September 2021 18:00 GMT

A farmer harvests rice on a field in Lalitpur, Nepal, October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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The summit will launch actions intended to lead to healthier, greener ways to produce and consume food worldwide

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Sept. 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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, Thursday's U.N. summit on food systems aimed 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 over 18 months for the event, held in New York and online, brought together some 100,000 people – government and U.N. officials, farmers, indigenous people, youth and business executives - to discuss ways of making food production fitter for the future.

A July meeting in Rome distilled some of the more than 2,000 ideas that emerged from hundreds of dialogues around the world into a set of themes and coalitions the summit has endorsed, to be taken forward at a practical level.

U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said the summit process had injected “new life into multilateralism” and led the way to food systems “that can drive the global recovery in three fundamental ways. For people. For the planet. And for prosperity.”

Agnes Kalibata, Guterres’ special envoy for the summit, told journalists it marked a “turning point” for the global food system and the challenge is now to go out and make it work on the ground - to end hunger, provide better jobs, produce healthier food and protect the planet.

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

There was never a plan for a negotiated agreement with legal force to come out of the summit. Instead, the process leading up to it discussed ways of shifting to greener, healthier and fairer food systems.

It also explored how to fund and implement policies and measures to do that at national and local levels.

Washington committed to spend $10 billion to end hunger and invest in food systems at home and abroad, half of which will go over the next five years to a U.S. aid programme that helps farmers in developing countries.

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

Ed Davey of the Food and Land Use Coalition said the summit would 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.

What problems has the summit tried to solve?

According to U.N. agencies, 2020 saw a dramatic worsening of world hunger, much of it related to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

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, as 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.

How can we do things differently and what happens next?

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

In the run-up, 148 governments, from Argentina to Ireland and Nigeria, held national dialogues to collect potential ideas, with tens of thousands of people taking part. Hundreds more independently organised discussions also contributed to the process.

The most promising initiatives were gathered under five "action tracks": giving everyone access to nutritious food; ramping up approaches that benefit nature and biodiversity; helping small farmers make a decent living; bolstering food systems against shocks and stresses; and providing the finance and technology needed to drive change.

One key idea, according to Gilbert Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, 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 initiatives include working toward deforestation-free supply chains, redirecting environmentally harmful subsidies to greener food production, slashing food waste and accounting for the true costs of food systems to people and the planet.

The selected solutions will be taken forward by international coalitions on themes including school meals, agroecology and decent work - bringing together governments, businesses, farmers, youth and other groups.

About 100 countries have also put together and submitted "national pathways" adapted to their needs, which they will roll out over the next decade.

U.N. agencies will help take forward the work, with a formal review of progress every two years.

Who decided what solutions the summit would back?

This was controversial. More than 300 grassroots organisations representing small-scale food producers, researchers and indigenous peoples boycotted the summit and put on their own meetings alongside its official gatherings.

They said the summit was disproportionately influenced by corporations and lacked transparency and accountability.

They argued the summit has backed "false solutions" such as voluntary corporate sustainability schemes and "risky technologies" including genetically modified organisms.

Alberta Guerra, senior food policy advisor for ActionAid, said the summit had created “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."

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

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

Groups ranging from organic farmers to indigenous peoples, youth and small businesses have been involved in the summit, pushing for a central role in decision-making, as well as funding and other support.

Elizabeth Nsimadala, president of the Pan-African Farmers' Organization and the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation, said the process had been diverse and brought in the voices and proposals of millions of small-scale farmers, herders and fishers.

Among other things, they want to see investments in strengthening their organisations and food value chains in a fair and equitable way, especially for women producers who have previously been marginalised, she said.

“We have really high hopes,” she said. “The time is now to move away from the talk to the real action.”

This article was updated on Sept. 23 with information from the UN Food Systems Summit in New York.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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