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Our hopes for the UN Food Systems Summit

20-09-2021

Sean Woolfrey, Cecilia D’Alessandro, Paulina Bizzotto Molina and Hanne Knaepen, ECDPM commentary, 20 September 2021

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The UN Food Systems Summit is taking place on Thursday. It represents the culmination of an 18-month global process that has brought together UN member states, food producers, researchers, civil society representatives and private companies to explore solutions to the many social, economic and environmental challenges afflicting the world’s food systems. Addressing these challenges is crucial for safeguarding the health of our planet and its people, and for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

At the Summit, heads of state and government and key food system stakeholders will make actionable commitments, global multi-stakeholder coalitions will be launched and innovative ideas proposed, all with a view to transforming the way our food is produced, distributed and consumed. The Summit will certainly not provide all the answers we need for more sustainable food systems, but here are four crucial things we hope leaders at the Summit will do.


1) Commit to equitable and transformative climate adaptation in agri-food systems


Our food systems are major contributors to climate change, and much attention is being given to mitigating this impact. But climate change is also a massive threat to our food systems and their ability to feed the world. Agriculture as we know it simply cannot thrive in a rapidly warming planet. This is especially true for climate change hotspots like the semi-arid regions of Africa, where local populations are heavily reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods and food security. For these reasons, leaders at the Summit must commit to transformative climate adaptation in agri-food systems.

Transformative climate adaptation requires technical innovations for food production. But it also requires social innovations in inclusive governance and climate justice for vulnerable populations. The stakeholders participating in Action Track 5 (AT5) of the Summit have explored many such innovations for improving food system resilience, including strengthening the decision-making power of local authorities and communities and promoting collective action through farmers’ organisations with a special focus on the role of women. The AT5 ‘synthesis of propositions’ from May 2021 lists plenty of promising social innovations for more inclusivity. However, the section on climate justice remains incomplete.

Leaders at the Summit should devote special attention to the inclusion of local authorities and communities. Equally important, they should ensure that adaptation in food systems promotes equality, for instance, by increasing access to finance for women. This would allow people at the local level to make the right choices to adapt their food system activities to climate impacts.


2) Propose innovative financing solutions for agri-SMEs and women entrepreneurs


Finance is crucial for food systems transformation. Without more and better coordinated public and private investments, many of the Summit’s solutions will not be implemented. The funding gap to achieve ‘Zero Hunger’ (SDG2) alone is massive – estimated at 33 billion US dollars per year until 2030. Crucially, more finance needs to reach local food system actors to enable them to develop viable business models that contribute to positive impact in food systems.

Small- and medium-sized agricultural enterprises (agri-SMEs) and women entrepreneurs play crucial roles in low-income countries, but their lack of collateral and high interest rates limit their ability to scale up and improve their businesses. Making the financial ecosystem more supportive of these actors – by scaling up innovative de-risking solutions, developing packages and products that meet their specific needs, and building gender-responsive financial institutions and business support services – is critical for a sustainable food system transformation.

Beyond creating new funds and alliances and making pledges to combat global hunger, leaders at the Summit need to identify and prioritise specific solutions that improve access to finance for these important food system actors, nurture innovation and reward sustainable practices.


3) Rethink how we define and measure progress, and invest in doing so


To ensure that leaders follow through on the various commitments they make, the Summit should establish a robust accountability mechanism that is able to track progress on these commitments. Voluntary and non-binding commitments will just not cut it. Ensuring effective accountability requires a fundamental rethink of how to monitor progress towards more sustainable and equitable food systems, as well as strong commitment to investing in improving the quality of data gathered to track progress.

Rigorous monitoring and metrics are necessary to effectively inform decision makers, in governments and companies, but also to support those who hold decision makers to account. Experience has shown that it is too easy for stakeholders that have vested interest in the status quo to ignore evidence of what is necessary to change our food systems. An effective accountability mechanism will need to manage the inevitable friction over facts, interest and values that complicate the job of public and private decision makers.

Evidence is only one part of the puzzle. To achieve systemic transformation, different stakeholders have different roles to play. The run-up to the Summit has created a shared agenda for change – now it is time for the next step. An accountability mechanism will empower governments to incentivise citizens and companies to take action. It can certainly be a powerful tool to put pressure on governments and companies to keep them to their commitment.


4) Take inclusivity seriously


Commiting to transformative climate adaptation, promoting innovative finance and ensuring accountability are just some of the steps that leaders at this ‘Solutions Summit’ need to take to solve the myriad challenges afflicting our food systems. But the Summit is also meant to be a ‘People’s Summit’. To live up to this ambition of democratising our food systems, leaders at the Summit need to demonstrate that they are taking seriously the various concerns raised by farmers’ organisations, social movements, civil society, indigenous peoples and independent scientists.

These have included concerns that the Summit preparations have excluded the voice of many food systems actors, that the Summit will reinforce the interests and dominance of political and economic elites and that it will replace democratic debate in public institutions with increasingly unaccountable decision-making mechanisms. Such concerns have even inspired the organisation of an alternative ‘Global People’s Summit on Just, Equitable, Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems’.

To address these concerns, leaders need to commit to genuinely participatory and inclusive forms of global governance for our food systems. Where possible this should involve building on and improving the functioning of inclusive global institutions such as the Committee on World Food Security. New processes or bodies established by the Summit must be transparent and accountable, and must meaningfully include a diversity of perspectives and voices.

While meaningful action on these four issues will not be sufficient to transform our food systems, we believe that action in these areas is vital for sustaining positive progress towards a future where our food systems work for all people, and for the planet. Leaders, we hope you’ll rise to the challenge this week.


On the road to the UN Food Systems Summit


In the months leading up to and following the Summit, we will share updates, papers and views on this page.


The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

Photo courtesy of Meruyert Gonullu via Pexels.

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Sustainable food systemsClimate adaptation