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Amy Brown headshot

At First Ever U.N. Food Systems Summit, Many Left the Table Hungry for More Substantive Change

By Amy Brown
sustainable food systems - woman holding her baby while farming

The United Nations Food Systems Summit, the first of its kind, was intended to overhaul the global food system to cope with the pressing challenges of a climate crisis, diminishing biodiversity and rising food insecurity. But many stakeholders left the table still hungry for change, among them smallholder farmers, indigenous groups and the U.N.’s own special rapporteur on the right to food.

Many of the critics were unhappy with what they perceived as the oversized influence of business at the table, not least because of the role the World Economic Forum played as a partner in the event. Over 300 global civil society organizations of small-scale food producers and indigenous peoples organized their own People’s Summit on Food Systems with calls to “end the global corporate food empire.” 

“Distressingly, the Food Systems Summit has offered governments nothing substantive to tackle the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the food crisis that it triggered,” the U.N. special rapporteur, Michael Fakhri, wrote in The Guardian. “The summit has offered people nothing to help overcome their daily struggles to feed themselves and their families. We must do better.”

Inside the virtual halls of the U.N. Summit, organizers had a very different view of its intention and outcome. Planning began over 18 months ago, with hundreds of dialogues involving more than 100,000 people, leading to a three-day pre-summit in July. Some 90 world leaders participated at the Summit itself on Sept. 23. In a press release, the U.N. cited the nearly 300 commitments from governments and other leaders around the world made at the Summit, including $10 billion from the U.S. to address food security over the next five years and $922 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over the next five years to tackle nutrition. It also noted the launch of the Indigenous People’s Food Systems coalition, and the support of the Pan-African Farmers Organization, which represents 80 million farmers across 50 African countries.

“In terms of inclusiveness, I don’t know of a more inclusive process,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed said at a U.N. press conference.

Competing views on changing the food system

At the heart of the tension are two starkly different views of how to change the food system: one that argues for a rights-based, agroecology vision that secures livelihoods for smallholder farmers, and the other emphasizing science, technology and market-based solutions. The question is whether these two perspectives can find common ground.

What everyone agrees on is the urgency and severity of the problem. The stated goal of the summit was to “deliver progress” on each of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by “leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges, such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality." 

With some 820 million people suffering from hunger, and 1 in 3 children malnourished and not developing properly, the need for that progress is painfully apparent. The COVID-19 pandemic increased poverty levels by up to 124 million people and undernourishment by around 9.9 percent.

A study released last week from the U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) called for sweeping policy changes in the global food system, focusing investments and policy decisions on rural food value chains. According to the study, the livelihoods of most rural residents depends on small-scale agriculture, and farms of up to 5 acres generate about 31 percent of the world’s food on less than 11 percent of global farmland. Yet while many small-scale farmers cannot earn a sufficient living from farming alone, these growers remain responsible for core food supplies in their countries, the report found.

In the view of the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism, organizer of the alternative food systems summit, the problem is that “globalized, industrialized food systems fail most people.” They advocate for a human rights-based and agroecological transformation of food systems, highlighting the importance of food sovereignty, small-scale sustainable agriculture, traditional knowledge, rights to natural resources, and the rights of workers, Indigenous peoples, women and future generations.

These campaigners claim that agroecology, Indigenous and experiential knowledge were left out of preparations for the U.N. Summit.

Emphasizing support for regenerative agriculture

For proponents of food system solutions rooted in science, technology and markets, such as the World Economic Forum, key to the transition to sustainable food and agriculture business models will be the ability of millions of farmers to adopt regenerative and climate-smart agricultural practices.

It’s a view echoed by U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action, a group representing farmer- and rancher-led organizations and other leaders throughout the food and agriculture system. CEO Erin Fitzgerald, who participated in the pre-summit back in July, argues that producers need to solve for challenges in finance, value distribution and resilience, and that substantial collaboration and investments are required for them to succeed.

Her view, as shared in her keynote at the pre-summit: “All farms — no matter the commodity — are unique and can be a solution for communities and the planet, but they need authentic marketing and representation to the consumer, technology, and financial investment to secure their future.”

For U.N. special rapporteur Michael Fakhri, the meeting that really counts isn’t the one held last week but rather the annual meeting in October of the Committee on World Food Security. In his view, the Committee is “one of the few such bodies that prioritize a human rights-based approach” while the annual meeting also convenes the world’s governments, civil society organizations, international organizations, businesses and experts. The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism will have a prominent place at the table.

For their part, organizers of the U.N. Food Systems Summit promised an annual progress report and a “stock-taking meeting” every two years to “ensure we continue to harness and direct this energy” towards building resilient food systems and achieving the SDGs," Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed said.

Image credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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