Food systems “game changers”: reflections so far

By Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of GAIN and Chair of the UN Food Systems Summit’s Action Track 1

Everybody wants food system change. Food systems as currently governed leave too much devastation in their wake: rising hunger numbers, 1 in 3 people malnourished, environmental degradation, unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions, inequality and vulnerability.

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We all want to find and implement actions that can change the ways in which food systems operate, the so-called “game changers”.

In the context of the UN Food Systems Summit Action Track 1, I’m often asked, “what are these game changers you are looking for?” After 4 months of working on the Summit, I have a better idea.

And that is good, because the Action Tracks are closing in on a “first wave” of potential game changers. There will be more waves of these potentially game-changing solutions — probably right through to the Summit eve itself. The Summit Dialogues represent one important source of generating new mindsets, incentives and coalitions for change. And there will be other important sources too.

But right now, I can see five different groups of game changers, and I will illustrate them with a few examples. Note that these examples are not necessarily the game changers we will recommend, as there are many other ideas being considered and developed (several received through our public online survey) and we need to see which are best evidenced, actionable and can be sustained well beyond the Summit. The ones listed here are simply illustrative:

1. Changing the fundamental incentives that got us here in the first place

A wide range of incentives brought us to this place. They govern how consumers, governments and businesses act. But they are not written in stone, they can be changed.

Fundamentally, we have food prices that do not reflect the true cost of food. Negative environmental and health spill overs generated within the food system are not taken into account when setting food prices. Taxes on sugary drinks are one way of trying to capture negative health impacts but surely, we can come up with something more holistic. Can we, say, find a set of consensus price indices that assess the true cost of food and then use that set to guide investors to invest in companies that internalise these costs in their business models?

Research and development(R&D) priorities shape the past and the future. If we focus agricultural R&D on staple crops, we get staple crops that are high productivity and climate resistant, while generating income for farm families and non-farm rural economies. This is of course good, but have we over-invested in these crops and underinvested R&D in non-staples such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, eggs, dairy, and fish which are also so important for health, economic livelihoods and the environment? Many studies have argued this is the case. Consumers, investors and employees can put pressure on private R&D to make this shift, but public R&D also has to make this shift. This could be an important game changer.

Data to describe, diagnose and decide a course of action to transform food systems are currently disorganised, fragmented, of variable quality and difficult to use. In the midst of this data mess, it is hard to know where and how to act to transform food systems. Changing this in a food system framing across health, environment and livelihoods is a potential game changer.

2. Taking advantage of shifts in underlying conditions

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted several underlying conditions, and it has revealed many things.

For example, it has shown us how fundamental small and medium-sized enterprises(SMEs) are to keeping food systems going and how susceptible they are to macro shocks. Can we build on the moment to increase the flow of capital to those SMEs that are ready to transform food systems?

The pandemic has also scaled up social protection programmes at unprecedented speed around the world: can we take advantage of the scale-up to expand permanent coverage of these programs? The scale-up has built implementation capacity and the confidence of governments that social protection can be part of crisis response. Now we need to support governments that want to make these programmes a key part of crisis prevention and mitigation, not least by building human capital and making these programmes more nutrition promoting.

COVID-19 has slowed down many companies’ corporate social responsibility(CSR) contributions, but can this pause serve as a reset: to aggregate and focus new CSR on the bigger issues of the day, such as transforming food systems to improve hunger, climate and biodiversity outcomes?

Think vaccines here: we were told vaccines take a decade to develop, but a colossal joint effort by science, industry and governments has done it in under a year. Surely the outrage of 1 in 11 people chronically hungry should spur similar action.

3. Where have you been all my life?

One of the interesting things about working on the Summit has been getting to know new organisations that are doing work that is so related to one’s own.

For example, it has been a revelation to come across organisations working on cool chains, on human rights, and on business ethics and standards which are so close to areas I work on and yet I have never heard of them. It is almost like we have been separated by the thinnest of opaque sheeting. Seeing through and breaking down those barriers has been a pleasure, a veritable splitting of a development atom, unleashing lots of good energy which can be channelled for food system transformation.

4. Working out how to do the obvious thing, but better

In the search for game changers, it is important not to overlook the obvious. Not every game changer needs to be shiny and new, many can be as simple as doing obviously impactful things in a different or better way.

For example, if we could find a way of fortifying rice with micronutrients such as iron, folate and zinc in ways that are safe, acceptable and economical, we would reduce hidden hunger for billions of people. It is a matter of technology, institutions and acceptance. Something that could be achieved, with focus and if done in the right way, in the next 5–10 years.

Another example would be the availability of food safety tests that are very quick and very inexpensive. This would revolutionise the way we think and act about food safety, speeding up learning, response and prevention, while empowering consumers and vendors.

5. Changing mindsets

Last, but perhaps the biggest: changing one’s mindset. This is one of the most fundamental game changers. The shift needed here is to think in a systems way. For example, I get asked frequently “what is the one thing you would change to transform food systems?” and my polite answer is “not having to answer questions like that” because it is a set of actions that need to be enacted to change a system — rarely will a single component be the major malfunctioning culprit.

Talking to, learning from, and gaining understanding from those you do not normally talk to is a great way of doing this and perhaps the only way. The Summit Dialogues are brilliant for this. Indeed, the very process of determining which government department is the focal point for the Summit and then organising the Dialogues are game changers in themselves. For the first time discussions are being had across government about food systems. How amazing if these discussions extend to other stakeholders and end up in coherent country food system strategies and plans to continue to channel energy long after the Summit.

Supporting youth the world over to mobilise around food system issues is also a potential mindset game changer. Too many people think youth cannot contribute to food system change. But half the world is under 30, we need their energy! Fortunately, there are many young leaders and youth champions ready to change those mindsets. The desire for healthy sustainable diets is universal and the young have a powerful right to be more in control of their food system destinies. The rest of us need to respect, protect and facilitate that right.

Conclusion

Finding potential game changers is hard. But it is fundamentally about hard work, creativity, and new partnerships. Figuring out what is stopping a positive action from having impact at scale means digging down one or two levels beneath the surface. It means taking things out of the “too difficult box”, even if we have to put some of them back. Thinking not only about what should happen but why it is not happening, and what can be done to change that, are skills that need nurturing.

I have been really impressed with the creative energy, the “can do” spirit, and the suppression of ego and logo that the Summit has engendered so far. We will need all of that and more in the run up to September 2021 and in the long sprint to achieving the SDGs in 2030.

If we can build and sustain an irresistible momentum to transform food systems, that will be the game changer of all game changers.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United Nations Food Systems Summit.

Official account • Generating momentum to help countries unleash the benefits of #foodsystems for all • #UNFSS2021 • un.org/food-systems-summit

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