The U.N. Food Systems Summit One Year On: Is it Just a Paper Tiger? – Food Tank – Food Tank

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Paper is the traditional gift for the first wedding anniversary. And that seems apt for the first anniversary of the U.N. Food Systems Summit (FSS). Is the Summit in danger of being a paper tiger: all talk and no action? Are the beautiful food system transformation plans destined to remain trapped on paper or can they spring into life?

I remain optimistic that the Summit can lead to significant food system transformation. But I do worry that the challenges facing us might become overwhelming.

Food systems under massive pressure

All the food and nutrition data are moving in the wrong direction. People around the world are struggling to get enough food and enough of the right food to eat. The global food system has been battered by the relentless and increasingly loud drumbeat of climate change. It is still struggling to emerge from the changed COVID landscape. And it is now pressured by high prices for food, fertilizer, fuel and finance.

The U.N. released the latest hunger numbers in July and it wasn’t good news. Hunger jumped by 150 million between 2019 and 2021 because of the toxic combination of COVID and climate change. And this is before the Ukraine-Russia conflict is factored in, and before the predicted economic downturns hit.

It gets worse. An upcoming report in Lancet Global Health, written by GAIN authors and others, will show the dangers of mineral and vitamin deficiencies, rather than just focusing on the topline data of calorie deficits. The report will suggest that over half of pre-schoolers and over two thirds of non-pregnant women of reproductive age are deficient in at least one of iron, zinc and folate. Once we factor in males and other age groups, such as schoolchildren and the elderly, these numbers imply that our current global suggestion that two billion people suffer from hidden hunger is a gross underestimation.

Because these numbers are so big, it’s easy to forget the human suffering they portray. That’s what makes food system transformation so important.

Immediate action and long-term systems thinking…

My second worry is that we lost sight of the big picture. Of course our immediate focus has to be providing nutritious food for all those people who are struggling with hunger. But we must also retain our focus on the imperative of changing food systems.

Our food systems got us into this situation. They drive climate change by being too disrespectful of nature and they are overly concentrated. We must make long-term changes so we never find ourselves in this place again.

If anything, the conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated, yet again, the need to stay with systems thinking and to diversify the what, where, how and who of food growing, processing, storage, transportation, acquisition and preparation. However, it is very clear that short term action must have an eye on the medium and long term.

…and systems action

Systems thinking is the very necessary first step. Probably the most valuable contribution from the FSS was this shift in mindset: from sectors to systems, from atomization to connectedness, from silos to intertwined destinies. Now, that systems thinking needs to be converted into systems action.

The next most valuable contribution is surely the set of national food system pathways developed, at last count, by 117 countries. Many of these are sophisticated and ready to be implemented. Whatever their stage of development, they are our best hope for food system transformation at the national and subnational levels. They deserve full support from all of us.

And I believe stakeholders are becoming more adept at providing this support. More and more I see the food silos breaking down:

  • COP27 has a formal session on nutrition, which is a very welcome first
  • CGIAR, the world’s leading agricultural research system, has explicitly put nutrition improvement as one of its top goals. This is another first
  • More businesses are signing up to the Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge
  • New foundations, including the Bezos Earth Fund, are focusing on food
  • Independent science-led mechanisms, such as the Food Systems Countdown Initiative, are beginning to document progress in food system transformation
  • At GAIN, we have made sustainability a key condition for increasing access to nutritious food

Country-level delivery

Countries are also gearing up for food system pathway implementation. Recently, I have been visiting a range of ministries in the countries in which GAIN works and I am very impressed with the commitment to cross-sector action. In addition, subnational food system data dashboards, covering one billion people, are being developed to allow countries to describe their food systems, diagnose the issues and decide how to strengthen them.

As a result, food system budgets are being developed because they reveal financing priorities and gaps in ways that speeches do not. Also, accountability mechanisms, such as the African Union’s CAADP Biennial Review, are being equipped with food system indicators.

When paper becomes reality

Food system transformation is highly complex. It requires an ability to scan broadly, identify areas to act, and then mobilize the technical, political and management capacity to deliver.

However, the relationships and political capital built at the FSS are not self-sustaining. We need strong and concerted activity to continually replenish them, through resource allocation and repurposing, action, assessment and perhaps most importantly, the demonstration of progress.

This requires all of us to stay the course and support the pathways. It is the only way to protect the most vulnerable of us from the damaging and often deadly volatility of food and fuel prices, and our fragile planet from heedless and needless plunder.

The paper tigers now need to spring into life.

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Photo courtesy of Francesco Gallarotti, Unsplash

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