Comment: Ruth Richardson and Peter Bakker hope this week’s UN Food Systems Summit will deliver concrete results towards make the food and agriculture sector more equitable and nature-positive
This week, the world will gather for a global convening that could transform our collective response to climate change. The gathering isn’t COP, or the UN General Assembly, or any of the marquee “climate” gatherings. It’s the first-ever United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), where world leaders have an opportunity to go big on solutions in the food systems that will help avert climate disaster.
The timing couldn’t be more urgent. A shocking report in May determined that “a rapid and unhalted growth of greenhouse gas emissions could soon force one-third of global food production beyond the safe climactic space”. That’s at least a third of the world’s food supply wiped out. This is now old news compared to the latest IPCC report, which warns that we have only a short window to prevent the “most harrowing” impacts of climate change, which include massive food shortages and destruction of whole agricultural systems.
For too long agriculture has been ignored in climate politics despite clear, stark, repeated evidence from scientists that it must be transformed. In the next few months, we have an unprecedented opportunity to connect the crises of food systems, nature, equality and climate. Indeed, three global summits in the upcoming months – UNFSS, UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) – can deliver concrete decisions to turn our food and land systems from being a part of the problem into being a fruitful source of the solutions we urgently need.
Food systems transformation may be the world’s best hope in limiting the worst impacts of climate change
Together, our organisations represent more than 200 multinational corporations and dozens of the leading philanthropies funding food systems, climate, hunger, Indigenous and civil society groups, and the SDG agenda. We believe that food systems transformation is critical – in fact, food systems transformation may be the world’s best hope in limiting the worst impacts of climate change, as well as fighting hunger and malnutrition, and improving livelihoods.
People and organisations are already taking action. In 2017, Eosta, Europe’s leading importer, packer, and distributor of sustainable, organic, and fair-trade fruits and vegetables began to use an evaluation tool that measured the performance of its growers against ecological and social indicators. Selling under the brand Nature and More, Eosta made it possible for consumers to trace and understand the true cost of their food purchase – right down to a single pomegranate or apple.
Elsewhere, Olam Food Ingredients, one of the world’s largest suppliers of ingredients, is in the global cashew supply chain, starting with farmer livelihoods – providing customers with a pathway to drive tangible change in farming communities. Google’s Food@Work program features a balanced plant-forward approach and includes the redesigning of food spaces and menus to nudge users toward better food choices and eating habits.
A key programme of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development is the Scaling Positive Agriculture project, aligned with the organisation’s Vision 2050: Time to Transform Food Pathway, which aims to transform global food systems by maximising the potential of agriculture as a solution for climate, nature and farmers. A significant focus is on climate positive food systems – shifting agriculture from a net source to a net sink of carbon in order to meet Paris Agreement targets, and with a sector target of carbon neutral by 2050.
Food systems are, clearly, at the nexus of the great challenges we face. But complexity is not an excuse for inaction. We need practical tools to help us understand, analyse, and shift systems – tools that will help highlight what’s wrong with the current system, point to changes needed to bring about a more desirable future, and enable decision-makers to act.
That brings us back to the UNFSS.
Like any global summit, the UNFSS runs the risk of being dominated by caution. Yet, global processes such as these are essential because they create momentum behind nations, pushing them to accept the need for change and to take collective action. And the UNFSS has already rallied diverse groups to collaborate.
Crucially, finance must flow globally toward more sustainable and equitable food and agriculture practices
Here’s how the UNFSS can be a defining moment for the future of food and, at the same time, a moment for climate action on par with COP:
First, to deliver real change for food systems and climate, the UNFSS must drive action on the true value of food to ensure that business, policy and other stakeholders account for all the externalities of food systems in their decision-making and reporting. Securing the application of the “true value” of food in business decision-making and reporting represents a unique opportunity to create the awareness and incentives for the big transformation intended for the summit. A new paper from Boston Consulting Group and WBCSD supports CEOs in taking the first steps toward this approach.
Second, we must create the conditions for systems such as regenerative agriculture and agroecology and fair and sustainable trade to flourish, and drive towards soil health and social equity. We need a host of solutions. A systems approach with integrity and strength is one centred on a strong role for local institutions, communities, smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples and women; plus investment and funding for infrastructure as well as capacity-building. Crucially, finance must flow globally toward more sustainable and equitable food and agriculture practices.
Finally, we need all stakeholders to work together, recognising tensions and that the pathways forward will not be without potholes. Systems transformation is not the responsibility of any one person or group. Covid-19 has taught us a hard lesson: we are intimately connected, yet impacts are deeply unequal. This must change.
By progressing the true value of food, embracing regenerative agriculture and creating new forms of collaboration, we see the UNFSS as a milestone to move towards our common vision: an equitable net-zero and nature-positive food system that can nourish all people with healthy diets. The time to act is now.
Ruth Richardson is executive director of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. Peter Bakker is president and CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)
United Nations Food Systems Summit IPCC report COP26 COP15 agroecology regenerative agriculture WBCSD Eosta Olam Scaling Positive Agriculture true value of food