Can the Food Systems Summit deliver food security and sustainability?

As the FAO prepares to host a controversial summit on tackling the interconnected poverty and climate crises, we asked experts if it can transform the way we produce and consume food
<p>Agnes Kalibata, special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, is a controversial appointment owing to her support of high-tech, commercial agriculture (image: ©FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto)</p>

Agnes Kalibata, special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit, is a controversial appointment owing to her support of high-tech, commercial agriculture (image: ©FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto)

Long before the Covid pandemic, conflict, climate change and economic crises threatened global food security and efforts to eradicate hunger and malnutrition by 2030, as set out in UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2. Today, world food systems, which contribute around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, are even further off track as numbers of those undernourished worldwide fast approaches 1 billion

As part of the UN’s ‘decade of action’ to meet the SDGs and tackle the interconnected crises of poverty, inequality and climate change, secretary general Antonio Guterres convened a World Food Systems Summit, to be held in September this year under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). A pre-Summit took place this week (July 26-28) to pave the way. 

Yet, the summit has proven controversial. Advocates of small-scale agriculture say the participation of private sector players has led industrial agriculture to wield an outsized influence on proceedings. Guterres also named the summit chief as former Rwandan agriculture minister Agnes Kalibata, a supporter of intensive agriculture and high-yield seed technology, prompting a boycott from grassroots organisations and the creation of a parallel event. 

As the pre-summit drew to a close, we asked the experts what progress the FAO has made on designing and supporting secure and sustainable global food systems, and what challenges remain ahead of the September main event.  

Song Yiching Yiching Song, programme leader, UN Environment Programme’s International Ecosystem Management Partnership (UNEP-IEMP) & Founder and adviser of Farmer Seeds Network in China

​​We all know our global food system and nutrition, currently threatened by climate change, COVID-19 and other drivers, must become resilient to crisis and shocks. Resilience and nutrition will essentially come from more diversified food production systems, which would be less likely to be so uniformly affected, contributing to food security and nutritional diversity at same time. However, what we are facing is increasing uniformity and the loss of agrobiodiversity – at alarming speed. Holistic and diversified farmer-managed seed systems, which are embedded in different bio-cultural contexts adapting to all changes in evolution, are the critical base for transforming towards diversified, resilient and sustainable food systems. For our seed and food systems to be secure and sustainable, farmer-led seed systems and related culture and knowledge must be fully recognised and supported.

The FAO has been continually addressing food issues with a critical approach, prioritising small farmers, enhancing agrobiodiversity, and supporting agroecology, through a number of important policies and programmes like the FAO Treaty on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, GIHAS, and its agroecology programme. Recently, the FAO also launched its Voluntary Guidelines for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Farmers’ Varieties/Landraces. However, the farmer seed system and related bio-culture values and traditional knowledge have not received sufficient recognition and systematic support. The continued degradation of the farmer seed system would threaten the whole food system’s sustainability.

We urgently need a more systematic approach and a platform linking the farmer and formal seed systems and involving multiple stakeholders for collective action and joint solutions for enriching and sustaining our food system for us all!

Judith HitchmanJudith Hitchman, co-President of Urgenci International Network, the Global Community Supported Agriculture Network

The Food Systems Summit is highly problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it is top-down. Secondly, it sets aside the multilateral UN approach involving States in favour of multi-stakeholderism that favours the private sector, especially major corporations. This is a reflection of the agreement the UN signed with the World Economic Forum, also in 2019. This has caused a major shift from a human rights-based approach to one that upholds a strong private sector presence in all UN spheres (food and health, among others). Thirdly, it sweeps aside the hard-won gains of the reform of the UN Committee for Food Security and Nutrition (CFS), the foremost inclusive body in the UN system. The CFS was reformed in 1996 and includes the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism that enables social movements to fully contribute to food policy while retaining their independence. The organised social movements were at no point invited to the so-called ‘open’ process of the Food Systems Summit. CFS also boasts a fully independent High Level Panel of Experts that contributes reports to support the policy-making process. And the HLPE is under threat by the proposed introduction of a ‘Food Policy-Science Interface’ (a sort of IPCC for food). Finally, although small-scale food producers account for 70% of food supplies globally, the solutions to the ongoing food crisis that are being put forward by the Food Systems Summit are industrial technology, ‘nature-based solutions’ and Regenerative Agriculture rather than the FAO’s previously agreed 10 Principles of Agroecology.

This all explains why social movements have been holding a global and massive counter-summit and boycotting the Pre-Food Systems Summit.

Robert Hii Robert Hii, editor, CSPO Watch

​​Palm oil is critical to global food security. Its high yield, versatility and affordability has made it an ideal crop for countries who seek self reliance in edible oils, especially those where farming plays a key role in socioeconomics.

With as many as 3 million smallholders contributing around 30% of palm oil produced every year, smallholders are a key stakeholder in the global palm oil industry. But more work is needed to support smallholders against the Summit’s 5 Action Tracks. For example, palm oil meets the goal of Action Track 2: producing nutritious foods from fewer resources to produce due to its land efficiency, but right now this is undermined by poor harvesting efficiency, yield gaps, price volatility and failure to adequately support the smallholder sector.

Another example relating to Action Track 4, which seeks “to contribute to the elimination of poverty by promoting full and productive employment for all actors along the food value chain…” is the glaring inequality in the distribution of profit along the value chain. Smallholders, even those certified under sustainability schemes are missing out. Palm oil can bring prosperity without the need for expensive intensive practices or exploitation, and in line with Action track 5, it has been an effective tool for peace in post-conflict Colombia. To ensure that palm oil can deliver on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which rely on healthier, more equitable food systems, smallholder farmers can no longer be left behind. This will be key to making palm oil a model system for sustainable and responsible commodity production.

Lauren BakerLauren Baker, senior director of programmes, Global Alliance for the Future of Food 

We are very encouraged by the FAO’s increasing support for agroecology. A number of key  reports and activities show evidence of agroecology as a key climate solution: The FAO Agroecology Knowledge Hub; the Working group on agroecology and NDC’s; their work evaluating agroecological performance through tools and data. All this is crucial to addressing climate change from a mitigation and adaptation perspective. Food systems contribute 25-35% of greenhouse gas emissions and require a shift from the practices that have the most climate impacts to practices that are regenerative, which makes this focus on agroecology significant.  

The FAO’s scaling up agroecology initiative is supporting governments to take agroecology to scale in several regions. West Africa is an interesting example. The technical assistance they provide in this regard is essential and needs to keep the 13 principles of agroecology at the core of this work. 

The FAO is also doing important work on city-region food systems linkages. The importance of this work has been highlighted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic where we’ve seen the fragility of global supply chains and increased reliance and interest in regional food systems. Subnational governments and city actors play a crucial role in food security and enabling local food economies. 

The biggest challenge is simply keeping up momentum and maintaining progress. There are positive signs and important work is happening. It’s critical that momentum moves the global community forward, and establishes sustainable, equitable food systems as a central way of achieving our climate, biodiversity and equity aspirations.

Nick Jacobs and Chantal ClémentNick Jacobs, director of IPES-Food (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) & Chantal Clément, deputy director of IPES-Food

Over recent years, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been instrumental in redefining sustainable food systems.

In its latest report on world hunger, the FAO sent a clear and uncompromising message: rising rates of hunger are pushing us off course to meet the SDGs. The FAO also reminded us that hunger is not just about calories. Food security can only be achieved by ending poverty and building resilient, inclusive and sustainable food systems. 

The FAO has also helped to show that food security and sustainability are two sides of the same coin. Recent events – from wildfires to floods to pandemics – have shown that the climate and biodiversity crises are already here. Food security clearly relies on the resilience of ecosystems and farming communities in the face of mounting shocks. Around the world, farmers are working with nature to build that resilience through diversity (of crops, species, landscapes, and livelihoods). The FAO’s ‘10 elements of agroecology’ provides an operational tool to promote these transformative systems. And the FAO-led Scaling Up Agroecology initiative is helping Senegal, Mexico, Colombia, and many other countries put agroecological transition policies in place. 

The Summit will only be successful insofar as it produces a clear vision of food system transformation, rooted in the changes that are happening on the ground

The UN Food Systems Summit offers an opportunity to underline the case for food system transformation. But there is also a risk that the Summit – with its focus on a myriad of ‘solutions’ and multi-stakeholder coalitions – could derail progress. The Summit will only be successful insofar as it produces a clear vision of food system transformation, rooted in the changes that are happening on the ground. And only insofar as Governments and UN agencies feel compelled to act.

Cristina PitaCristina Pita, principal researcher, Shaping Sustainable Markets, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

The UN has made a paradigm shift to start looking at food as a whole system from production to consumption. Looking at the complex socio-economic and governance systems around food is crucial to make progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  

Aquatic foods – from the ocean, rivers and lakes – play a vital role in food systems but are often not included in the global conversation about food security and nutrition. It is crucial to recognise their importance, especially food from small-scale artisanal fisheries and aquaculture. 3.3 billion people worldwide get 20% of their animal proteins from fish. For people in several coastal and island states, it’s more than 50%. More than 660 million people, mostly in the global south, depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods – that’s 10% of the world population. 177.5 million of these people work in commercial capture fisheries and aquaculture, and half of them are women. 

The Food Systems Summit needs to ensure the active and meaningful inclusion of small-scale and subsistence producers of aquatic foods, to support and protect them, include them in decision-making and policy, and provide them with equitable economic opportunities. The FAO-endorsed Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries provide the policy directions fundamental to eradicating hunger and poverty, prioritising the rights of those who depend on small-scale fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods and promoting sustainable food systems. The Summit should encourage the scale-up of their implementation.

Benedikt HaerlinBenedikt Haerlin, director, Foundation on Future Farming and vice-president, European Agricultural and Rural Convention, ARC2020

Among the most important progress the FAO has made towards secure and sustainable food systems was its recent work on agroecology and a common understanding of the combined challenges, which some call a syndemic, of over-, under- and malnutrition and the global climate and biodiversity crisis. The FAO had cautiously opened its mind and actions toward food sovereignty and inclusive deliberations and agreements between governments, businesses, peasant organisations, indigenous communities and civil society, within its Committee on World Food Security. 

However, a new, corporate multi-stakeholder concept of the UN Food Systems Summit driven by World Economic Forum initiatives, some governments, global institutions and private foundations gives rise to concerns. A technocratic and productivist top-down approach may take over again within the FAO hierarchy as well as a new science and policymaking body now proposed. It has been a long and winding process to understand that hunger, malnutrition, environmental and socio-cultural destruction can only be overcome by bottom up, respectful cooperation and democratic self-determination starting and ending at the community level. The healing is only about to start. 

It is heartbreaking to see a new “disruptive technological innovations, some social engineering and public private partnerships will fix the problems” narrative, abusing participatory food systems language to sell old stories and solutions and creating more problems than they solve. Personally, it has led me to withdraw from the UNFSS process together with thousands of peasant organisations, CSOs, NGOs and scientists worldwide. We hope to find better solutions and create transparent, respectful and trustworthy co-operation.