Let's reboot our global food systems

Posted on: September 8, 2020

UN Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit


Woman at a fruit stand in Africa
Photo: D.Cz./Shutterstock

A new sustainable approach to food and agriculture must tackle hunger, improve nutrition, safeguard the environment and hardwire resilience to global shocks such as COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic began as a health crisis, but it is also an environmental crisis that has quickly evolved into an economic one. The common link between all three – from the suspected source of the outbreak to economic stimulus packages – is, in a nutshell, food.

Even before the inquiries into the pandemic begin, it is clear that there were multiple failings in food systems globally. How we think about, access and manage food – from production to markets to supply chains – contributed to, and exacerbated, the outbreak of the disease. 

The essential lesson to learn is that by reconfiguring food systems, the world can both reduce the risk of similar outbreaks in future and be better placed to protect the most vulnerable from disasters when they do occur.

As part of the recovery from the pandemic, the international community must find a way to transform decades of agricultural progress and innovation into more resilient food systems. And this transformation must simultaneously offer better nutrition and prevent hundreds of millions more people from becoming food insecure, while protecting natural resources and finding ways to reverse the damage of the past.

The key is to deal with the system as a whole, an approach that I share with the new CEO and chairperson of the Global Environment Facility, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez. 

A food systems approach means that rather than tackling the outcomes of a broken food system – such as malnutrition, deforestation, and agricultural emissions – we instead tackle the fundamental and interconnected system itself, from production and distribution to consumption and disposal.

For the first time, we have an opportunity to transform all aspects of our food systems at once through the UN Food Systems Summit 2021, a process that is already under way. This gives us a chance to align food systems with existing commitments to global climate action, the safeguarding of the global commons, and sustainable growth in emerging markets, and to deliver on our aspirations for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The first vital step in transforming food systems from start to finish is for food to be treated, at the highest level, as an issue that cuts across multiple departments and agencies.

Too often, these systems are considered to be the responsibility of national agriculture ministries. Yet from the moment land is prepared for the planting of seed, agriculture is using the environment, making the fortunes of both inextricably linked.

And as soon as agriculture intersects with food markets, it also affects diets, nutrition, and, therefore, health. Conditions such as vitamin deficiencies, diabetes, and malnutrition are directly linked to the ability to access safe and healthy food – and, in turn, to the way food is transported, marketed, and sold.

As a former agriculture minister myself, I understand how the entire system would benefit from greater communication and alignment between not only departments of agriculture and environment, but also those of health, trade, and business. 

So I congratulate countries that are already forging a food systems approach, where food is no longer a production or ministry of agriculture issue, but is a systems issue cutting across several ministries.

Another critical component of such an approach is developing the right incentives that encourage healthy and sustainable production, trade, and consumption, without unintended consequences or trade-offs.

Subsidies and taxes on producers or consumers are worthless if the resulting change creates new problems for other aspects of food systems.

My hope, going into the UN Food Systems Summit 2021, is that incentivizing environmental protection should not come at the cost of livelihoods, which are directly linked to diets, health, and education.

At the same time, what and how we eat has a major impact on our environment. Achieving greater sustainability will rely on shifting from unhealthy dietary habits and demands to promoting more diversity across food systems.

Countries would benefit from outlining these different interconnected efforts towards transforming food systems in a scrutable, accountable way, just as targets for climate action under the Paris Agreement are set out in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). 

I hope the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 will provide a framework and process through which nations can make coherent, actionable commitments. It is through reviewing our collective commitments throughout the decade of action that we will deliver on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Finally, a systems approach also means investing in more resilient agriculture and supply chains, as a fundamental component of production, distribution, and consumption.

As climate change intensifies, food crops and livestock risk becoming stranded assets unless supply chains can adapt to new circumstances and continue to reach markets.

Developing ways to scale up successful innovations that address multiple facets of food systems is critical for greater resilience to shocks in the future, while also addressing the fundamental needs that will unlock progress towards global goals for health, education, poverty, and equality.

Being off course in delivering our global goals before the pandemic was unconscionable, but to be so in the middle of a global health crisis is truly tragic. 

Together, we can change this by raising our collective ambition, undertaking a long-overdue reboot of our food systems globally and delivering concrete action on our commitments.

I have been encouraged by the resolve that the COVID-19 pandemic has instilled in us to not just find ways to fix our food systems but to do so with greater urgency than ever before. The UN Food Systems Summit 2021 is under way, and presents the perfect opportunity for every country, government, and individual to come together with ambitious commitments – for each other, our planet, and the future of our children.

This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.

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