Transforming the Future: Supercharging Action at the UN Food Systems Summit

Joao Campari, Michelle Nunn, Lawrence Haddad, Gunhild Stordalen and Saleemul Haq

In a time of many seemingly insurmountable challenges, there is something that we can fix. One thing, which if changed could simultaneously accelerate the end of hunger, ensure everyone has access to a healthy diet, dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reverse biodiversity loss, and make societies and economies more equitable and resistant to devastating pandemics such as COVID-19.

A cabbage farmer from Madagascar shows her successful crop.
A cabbage farmer from Madagascar shows her successful crop.
Madagascan cabbage farmer. Photo: IFAD

Does that sound too good to be true? Think again. The thing we can fix is food systems: those in our local communities as well as the ones we share as global citizens. From the farm to the table, the decisions that we as individuals make about land-use, food consumption, production, processing, distribution, retailing, and advertising matter. Food systems are truly essential and are generating extensive amounts of nourishment, jobs, and economic growth — not to mention the pleasure and cultural understanding that comes from sharing a meal. However, they are also impacting nature and climate while leaving behind the health and livelihoods of vast swathes of humanity, consigning coming generations to a dire future.

This is demonstrated by the fact that hunger is rising and 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. It is also manifested in biodiversity loss, happening at faster rates than at any other time in human history, and climate impacts as 30 per cent of GHG emissions (including half of the most potent gases, such as methane) come from food systems. Science tells us that the joint tipping points of biodiversity loss and climate change are creating the conditions for future novel viruses like COVID-19 to jump from animals to humans.

These facts are all the more incredible because we have never had more knowledge, or more wealth, to address these challenges. But those resources need to be galvanised into action by a recognition of the massive drag on humanity’s prospects, and the massive opportunity, that food systems currently represent. We do not merely need to fix food systems: we need to transform them into positive forces that can generate the outcomes we need — instead of accepting the outcomes they are currently delivering.

This is the ambition of the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit: to launch the collective journey of transforming our food systems to give us the best possible chance of delivering on the 2030 Agenda. Launching a Summit led by the UN Secretary-General on World Food Day with a live broadcast across all 24 time zones and viewed in every region of the world reflects the ambition of the Summit’s engagement process to engage meaningfully with people in every country over the course of the year. It also indicates that the Summit is not a standard conference where negotiations happen behind closed doors. The Summit leadership has set the tone that this is a “people’s summit” and one where everyone has a role to play.

Focus areas, known as “action tracks”, will shape the consultations and scientific research in the lead-up to the Summit to ensure the outcomes deliver on essential societal goals: ensuring safe and nutritious food for all, shifting to sustainable consumption patterns, boosting nature-positive production, advancing equitable livelihoods, and building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stresses.

Just as no-one has a monopoly on the problems, no-one has a monopoly on the solutions. We want the best ideas for change, wherever they come from, and to leverage the energy of people the world over. It will also be a Solutions Summit. It will not end with a photo and a press release, with no commitments made, no solutions delivered, and no mechanism to ensure commitments are followed up with action. Instead, it will focus on identifying tangible, specific game-changing solutions that can have equitable impact at scale, in a sustainable way, on the above outcomes. It will then operationalise those solutions into specific actions, champion them, and obtain stakeholder commitments to achieving them — our aim is to then track them via an annual data-based ‘Countdown to 2030’ mechanism supported by the Action Tracks and others.

To ensure that these game-changing actions will be evidence based, the Summit has called on a diverse group of experts to participate in a multidisciplinary Scientific Group to advise us. A Champions Group will raise awareness of the challenges and the opportunities posed by food systems. Every country will have the opportunity to host multiple Food System Summit Dialogues, drawing on wisdom from around the world, identifying ideas to flow into the process of co-constructing solutions. We will work with practitioners and experts on cross-cutting topics such as gender equity, youth empowerment, financing, and innovation to make sure these elements are front and centre. We will work together with UN agencies, civil society networks, private sector networks, governments, youth leaders, farmers, indigenous peoples, and anyone who wants to get involved.

Finally, as the leaders of the five Action Tracks, we will work with each other. The goals of each action track are equally essential and mutually reinforcing. Just as we cannot pick and choose which human rights to respect and protect, we should not be forced to choose between climate mitigation, malnutrition reduction, biodiversity loss, improved livelihoods, or more resilient food systems. There will be trade-offs between these different outcomes, which we will identify, assess, and manage — but we will put an even greater emphasis on the synergies among them, some of which have yet to be imagined, much less realised.

With this goal in mind we are eager to share our vision for action to put the world’s food systems on a track to a healthy and sustainable future, for nature and for all people. We hope to engage with you in the upcoming listening forums that we will be organising in the coming two months. For more information, please visit the UN Food Systems Summit website and social media. The need is great, but the motivation is even greater, and we look forward to engaging with you as we transform the future.

The authors are the Chairs of the five Action Tracks of the UN Food Systems Summit:

  • Joao Campari, Global Leader Food Practice, WWF International
  • Michelle Nunn, President and CEO, CARE USA
  • Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director, GAIN
  • Gunhild Stordalen, Founder and Executive Chair, EAT Foundation
  • Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development

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

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