“Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on half the world,” Martin Luther King Jr said more than 50 years ago in possibly the most concise, relatable definition ever of “food systems”.
In other words, food systems are not just about food, or about a linear chain of events that turn grain in a field into cereal in your breakfast bowl. We all eat, billions of us actually work directly with or in some way related to food growing, production, storing, selling, marketing and advertising, and billions more are unaware of the impacts of the food system on us, or our actions on it.
“The food system is the interconnected system of everything and everybody that influences, and is influenced by, the activities involved in bringing food from farm to fork and beyond,” says the City, University of London’s Centre for Food Policy. Food systems are complex. They feed into, are influenced by, and are interconnected with other systems: the environment, nutrition and health, the economy and human rights.
For the 811 million people globally who officially (according to the UN) faced hunger in 2020, food systems are about everything that happens to prevent them from accessing affordable, high-quality food, or prevents food from getting to them.
For the 2.1 billion people globally who are overweight or obese, and may also suffer from diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, food systems are about what enables the wrong types of foods – especially “ultra-processed” foods such as fast food, pre-packaged snacks and sugary cereals and drinks – to be easily accessible and affordable. They are about how those systems devalue what is healthy for us to eat and what is sustainable for us to produce.
For the 1.5 billion producers of food globally – from subsistence and smallholder farmers to disproportionately influential transnational agri-food corporations, or “Big Food” – they are about what makes it easy or difficult for them to grow, manufacture and distribute their produce, especially what governments do or don’t do to protect our right to food and to promote the consumption of healthy food.
Food systems: At the core of climate and biodiversity crises
Some shocking numbers show just how integral the food system is to our current climate crisis: the global food system contributes about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture uses about 70% of all freshwater resources. About 60% of all fish species are overfished to the point where a species cannot replace itself through natural reproduction (a status known as “maximally sustainably fished”).
One million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, in large part because of changes in land use such as the eradication of huge swathes of natural habitat (such as the Amazon rainforest) for mining or logging or for grazing land for cattle (meat production). If all this is not depressing enough, know also that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.
The first UN Food Systems Summit
Recognising their centrality, world leaders recently acknowledged that food systems need to step up to take centre stage in the world’s climate-crisis thinking.
Two years ago, on World Food Day in 2019, UN secretary-general António Guterres announced that the UN’s first Food Systems Summit would take place in 2021. For the first time, the UN had deemed food systems worthy of global attention and action. (And this was conceived even before the Covid-19 pandemic’s devastating knock-on effects of increased poverty and food insecurity.)
The idea for the summit had grown out of discussions with the UN’s three Rome-based agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, convenor of World Food Day), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the World Food Programme (WFP), during the July 2019 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.
The summit was held (virtually) on 23 and 24 September, with an overall goal to promote “transformative food systems” so that they are aligned with and work towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda. (Goal 1 is “zero hunger”, Goal 2 is “zero poverty”; there are 15 more, most of them affected by or affecting food systems).
In a statement summarising the Summit on 23 September, Guterres said: “Many of the world’s food systems fragile and not fulfilling the right to adequate food for all.” Hunger was on the rise, three billion people – almost half of humanity – could not afford a healthy diet, and “malnutrition in all its forms – including obesity – [is] deeply entrenched, leading to a broad range of negative health, education, gender and economic impacts.” The drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition, he said – including climate extremes, economic volatility, and conflict – are further exacerbated by poverty and high levels of inequality.
It was therefore to be a “People’s Summit”, focusing on “solutions for people, planet and prosperity” by consulting and collaborating with actors across the entire food system, including the most vulnerable and marginalised, such as “workers, small producers, women, and indigenous peoples”.
At the virtual summit, 22,000 people from 183 countries participated, delivering “a resounding message that business as usual is not good enough,” Guterres said, and calling for scaled-up, urgent action. According to the secretary-general, “inspiring visions for transformative food systems were forged by governments, gathering together businesses, communities and civil society” to chart pathways for the future of food systems.
Vested interests, the status quo, politics and progress
But critics say that “few tangible commitments” were made – though 150 countries announced voluntary commitments to ensure “more resilient, inclusive and sustainable” food systems.
As pointed out by South African food right activists, some human rights experts, even those involved in organising the summit, expressed fears that the summit would ultimately serve corporate interests more than human rights.
This is linked to the fact that 550 NGOs, networks and research organisations from across the globe say the World Economic Forum, which has a “strategic partnership” with the secretary-general’s office and was one of five main sponsors of the summit, counts among its members agri-business multinationals including Coca-Cola and Nestlé. (The same group wrote a joint letter to the secretary-general in advance of the summit, calling on him to “rethink the organisation of the summit”.)
“By ignoring the vested interests behind increasing rates of hunger, malnutrition and famine, the summit only reflects the status quo,” a joint statement by UN human rights rapporteurs Michael Fakhri, Dr David Boyd and Olivier de Schutter said.
Fakhri, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food and an adviser to the summit, wrote separately in a Guardian opinion piece that “the summit has unfortunately left many people feeling disappointed”. He acknowledged that the summit did turn “the attention of governments to developing national food plans that could be transformative”, and drew in “thousands of people to share and develop their ideas on how to transform food systems” during the preparation process. However, he argued it did “nothing substantive” to offer governments tools to tackle the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, nor to offer individuals ways “to help overcome their daily struggles to feed themselves and their families”.
The list of criticisms goes on. It is highly politicised, long and driven by the vested interests of thousands of different entities and perspectives.
But has the summit, in attempting to go beyond the Covid-related food crises and tackle the bigger picture, in the long term, not made a landmark achievement by bringing together such a huge range of voices, agendas, expertises and strategies, even if they are not aligned?
It is the first time this has happened.
One powerful paper published just after the summit in the influential journal Food Policy, calls for more rigorous monitoring to guide food systems transformation by 2030. The paper, co-authored by Lawrence Haddad, one of the summit’s chairs and one of 46 co-authors (including Jane Battersby of UCT and Sheryl Hendriks of the University of Pretoria), proposes a detailed tool with practical application for countries. It calls for “rigorous, science-based monitoring to guide public and private decisions and support those who hold decision-makers to account”, for better monitoring of “the whole of food systems and the interactions between their components”, lays out a framework to define how a monitoring agenda should be structured, and an inclusive process to analyse food systems’ performance and accountability.
It is just one of thousands of efforts and actions that the summit has catalysed.
The UN Food Systems Summit was destined not to be perfect, and to be lambasted by critics, activists and all those who felt underrepresented on the global stage. But whatever its failings, it has brought global attention to food systems as both a problem and a solution, and has raised the profile of vast reserves of under-acknowledged energy, advocacy and mobilisation for food systems transformation across the globe. It’s a start. DM/MC
Adèle Sulcas is a writer and editor who focuses on global health and food policy. She has previously worked at the World health Organization and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. She has an MBA, and an MSc in Medical Anthropology.