Food system transformation is ‘daunting and galvanizing' in equal measure

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Firn
© GettyImages/Firn

Related tags regenerative ag UN Food Systems Summit

As the world’s first ever food systems summit approaches, the spotlight on the need to transform the way we produce and consume food is intensifying.

We collate perspectives from players focused on sustainability in trade, food and animal agriculture on the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which is to run on Thursday this week, on what it promises:

The UNFSS should form the basis for transformation of the global food production model, providing new perspectives, according to IDH, the sustainable trade initiative.

And it is a timely event, given the recent publication of the IPCC on climate change, said Daan Wensing, CEO at IDH. “If we want to stay below 1.5°C or even below 2°C, there is work to do and transforming our food systems is key to this. Now.”

While more and more companies, sectors and our partners are looking to ‘fix’ the system, it is actually beyond ‘fixing’ at this stage, he argues.

“The time for individual companies, governments and actors to move in isolation is long gone. They might meet their own (voluntary) targets but will never achieve the collective goal. Hence, we need to think in systems, identify what leads to the current situation, choose the role each actor has to play and identify new opportunities from that which will allow us to help them forward.”

The summit, he said, is trying to map a pathway to design the system for the future that nourishes all people, while protecting and restoring the natural environment, secure living income and wages, and boost resilience - all in an equitable way. “Many actors will have to come together in order to bring this to life and to deliver on commitments.”

Regenerative approaches

Lesley Mitchell, associate director, sustainable nutrition, Forum for the Future, said that food and agriculture are at the heart of the world’s deepest environmental and health challenges - from climate change, soil degradation and crashing biodiversity to mal- and over-nutrition.

“These multi-layered crises are underpinned by deeply-entrenched inequalities across global food supply chains. The current unsustainable nature of our food systems has major implications for not just land use and our diets, but our oceans, forests and the livelihoods of millions.

“Given its influence, agriculture has huge positive potential to restore ecosystems and sequester carbon, build thriving economies and healthy communities.”

As the UNFSS approaches, food is front of mind across the sustainability movement, said Mitchell. “The challenge of transforming how we both produce and consume food is daunting and galvanizing in equal measure.”

And one word, she continues, that stands out above all others when reimagining the future of food is ‘regenerative’.

“There’s no denying that ‘regenerative’ has become sustainability’s latest buzzword; you only need to scour the latest headlines to see the traction it’s getting.

“Regenerative approaches aim to deliver the right kinds of healthy foods for everyone. In real terms, this transformation is profound, impacting diversity of crop production, shifting from mono-cropping to multi-cropping, creating greater complexity of market models and routes to market, and requiring us to value and reward carbon and ecosystem services. It takes a longer view, requiring more patientfinancial capital and a willingness to build new knowledge, skills and share the risks of the transition.”

Marathon day of commitments

The UNFSS, according to the organizers, will see a marathon day of commitments from governments, advocates, communities, and businesses.

The program includes announcements from more than 85 heads of state and government on Thursday, September 23.

Taking place during the UN General Assembly high-level week, the summit follows an 18-month process in which 148 countries have hosted national dialogues with key players at every stage of the food system to develop national strategies for more inclusive, resilient and sustainable food systems.

“After 18 long months, the world is on the brink of a Summit that aims to change the trajectory of global progress, uniting everyone in a shared commitment to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and the fundamental human rights at their core,”​ said Agnes Kalibata, UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for the UNFSS.

Nick Jacobs, director, and Chantal Clément, deputy director, of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), say the UNFSS can be an opportunity to underline the case for food system transformation. But there is also a risk​ that the event – 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.”

What ESG investors want

Also weighing in on the pending summit yesterday was the FAIRR initiative, which looks to drive change in the animal agriculture sector. It outlined what ESG-conscious investors will be looking for:

  • Science-based targets​ – "Investors want to see targets that cover the entire value chain, are aligned with the latest climate science and aimed at a 1.5-degree pathway. Companies in the food system should commit to science-based targets to show investors they’re serious about climate risk."
  • Better data from food companies​ – "We need to encourage, through mandatory and standardized reporting, if necessary, better ESG disclosure from food companies. Investors need gold-standard data on how companies are de-risking their operations and are responding to challenges around climate, biosecurity, working conditions and antibiotics resistance."
  • Supportive policy for alternative protein"Protein diversification in global diets is essential to reach Net Zero and public policies need to encourage this trend. For example, plant-based meat production causes 30-90% less greenhouse gas emissions, uses 72-99% less water, and results in 51-91% less nutrient pollution in aquatic systems. The UK government’s recent National Food Strategy recommends that the Government increases plant-based food consumption by 2030 which is encouraging, but the market will be catalysed by more national investment in research and development and more incentives for protein diversification at scale."
  • Biodiversity and protection of nature ​– "Current processes to meet the demand for animal protein are responsible for record levels of deforestation and biodiversity loss. The Dasgupta Review outlined that our future prosperity is reliant on both the protection and restoration of our natural ecosystems. One big step forward would be to establish clear pathways to deforestation free supply chains from meat and dairy companies.  The finance-related discussions around the summit have highlighted the important role of finance ministries in repurposing agricultural subsidies to support climate and nature goals. This is also a topic which FAIRR investors have engaged on previously, with calls for the EU to better align its subsidies with climate and biodiversity protection."

Controversial event

In the lead up to the event, the UNFSS has attracted a fair share of controversy.

NGOs such as Friends of the Earth (FOIE) argue that it has been hijacked by large corporations, under the guise of the World Economic Forum. 

“The summit is under fire from hundreds of small food producers and civil society organizations, who believe the UNFSS is ignoring human rights and sidelining the small-scale producers that produce 70-80% of the world’s food, prioritizing instead the interests of corporations.”

A spokesperson for the World Economic Forum told this publication that it does not have a central role in the summit. Instead, it is working alongside Mercy Corps on one of the four summit 'levers'.

"We are just one of many supporting and raising awareness for key issues, just like the WWF, CARE, and the World Bank."

The Forum has always been very vocal​ that our global challenges cannot be resolved by one sector, government or individual acting alone and all voices should be included.

"That is why we bring an international community of civil society, innovators and youth voices together with the public and private sectors. For example, the co-chairs​ ​for our 2019 Annual Meeting were all young leaders under 30, our UpLink community ​is crowd sourcing innovation and our Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network​ spans 14 countries and brings together civil society, governments, start-ups and businesses to work together on shaping the future of tech governance,"​ said the spokesperson. 

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