The first-ever United Nations Food Systems Summit was held on September 23, 2021, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. The summit was an opportunity for stakeholders – member countries, private companies and non-governmental organizations – to share their vision for rebalancing the current food system. The goal of the summit was to begin discussions that will ready global food systems to face the challenges of tomorrow, which included accelerated climate change and a global population projected to hit 10 billion by 2050.
The United Nations Food Systems Summit focused on the overall sustainability of all food systems. The theme of the inaugural summit was, “A food system where no one is left behind.”
Food security was a factor mentioned by nearly every speaker, and proved to be one of the Sustainable Development Goals that received the most attention. There was a growing acknowledgment that the current food system is not serving the needs of those who need it the most – the poor. Almost 910 million people are estimated currently to be facing hunger issues, which includes about 100 million children. The Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated this and pushed more people towards hunger. The role food waste (almost 33%) plays in hunger was also highlighted, emphasizing the need for better post-harvest supply chain management, especially in the rural areas of developing countries.
Small farmers and their roles
The focus on food security also brought attention to the smallholders (small farmers) and their role in the food system. Small farmers are likely to face the brunt of climate change, further compounded by their lack of adequate and modern resources. As such, small farmers are expected to need more help in navigating, and persisting, in the efforts to build a more resilient food system.
Climate change impacts
Perhaps, the biggest theme of the summit was how to increase global food production in face of increasing climate change. Climate change is likely to decrease the yields of major staple crops, which would worsen food security and hunger issues.
Helping all nations succeed
The above three factors combined highlight the effect on developing nations versus developed economies and the issue of striving for an equitable food system that could benefit all. In this context, the role developed nations could play in terms of technology transfer and debt relief was discussed and enforced the theme of the summit.
Working with nature
Speaker after speaker discussed the need to “work with nature” rather than against it as means to stabilizing the food system. Things such as using indigenous knowledge of lands, stopping deforestation, shifting dietary patterns away from predominantly meat-heavy diets and even incorporating modern technology such as gene editing, drought-tolerant varieties and low-cost sensors were discussed.
Unsurprisingly, there were very few countries that announced concrete plans and goals in terms of achieving summit goals. Rather, the emphasis of country statements was on
- fair trade and removing food trade restrictions for a smooth supply,
- transformation of local food systems to meet in-country demand,
- use of digital tools in the production and supply chain,
- nutrition education,
- school meal programs,
- and sustainable agriculture.
The European Union (EU) reemphasized their “Farm to Fork” initiative goals in terms of reducing synthetic inputs by 50% and boosting organic production to 25% of the total.
The US announced a $10 billion fund towards fighting hunger issues, with half of that being allocated for domestic spending and school nutrition. The US and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also announced a joint mission for climate change to be launched at the UN Climate Change Summit (COP26). In addition, the US also highlighted the new “Productivity Coalition” in association with UAE, Brazil and New Zealand, looking to address food security with technological innovations that can boost production.
In addition to member countries, there were also declarations from private sector companies such as Syngenta, PepsiCo and Unilever, highlighting their plans to help their stakeholders move towards a more sustainable production system by providing information and premium price assistance.
All attention now moves to the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) hosted by the UK, the first two weeks of November in Glasgow.