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11.10.2021 | Blog

The UN Summit on Food Systems: No Systemic Change in Sight

More food is being produced worldwide than ever before. Despite this, hunger figures have been rising again for the past six years and even threaten to approach the one billion mark by 2030. A UN summit on food systems held last week in New York intended to address this contradiction but with rather moderate success.

Eine Verkäuferin aus Kambodscha steht hinter einem prall gefülltem Tisch mit Gemüse.
A vegetable seller at a market in Cambodia. © Grossmann/Welthungerhilfe
Lisa Maria Klaus Policy and External Relations

The timing of the summit could not have been better: climate change and armed conflict are undoing successes in the fight against hunger, and the COVID-19 pandemic is acting as an additional accelerant. While up to 811 million people are going hungry, one in three is now overweight or obese. So it's high time to fundamentally transform our food system – the way we produce, process, trade and consume food. 

The Problem: Our Food System Is Unfair and Unsustainable

Climate Change as Cause and Consequence

Our food system suffers from climate change, but also fuels it further: it is responsible for about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. But agriculture is also a major driver of global biodiversity loss. Land-use changes, intensive farming methods, factory farming and other practices are causing massive ecological damage.

There is enough food produced worldwide - in terms of kilocalories - but not enough healthy food. Hunger is mostly not a problem of availability but of access. 40% of the world's population does not have sufficient financial resources to afford a healthy diet. This also includes smallholder farmers or farm workers in the Global South who produce food for the Global North. Armed conflicts, such as in Syria or Yemen, and the escalating climate crisis further exacerbate the situation. Those affected have no reserves and consequently slip into acute hunger crises.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal of overcoming hunger by 2030 is almost impossible to achieve. For years, numerous actors have been pushing for the global food system to be restructured and made fair, sustainable and crisis-proof. After all, adequate nutrition is a human right. 

UN Summit and the Icarus Effect: Flying too High

UN Secretary General António Guterres had defined ambitious goals for the UN Food Summit: it was to be a historic summit, one that would introduce bold new measures to reverse the negative trend in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and would formulate concrete solutions and produce far-reaching commitments. And it should be inclusive - a People's Summit.

Hundreds of stakeholders have consulted in countless online meetings, formed working groups and put proposals on paper over the past 18 months. Nearly a thousand dialogue events were held, and a three-day pre-summit in Rome at the end of July was followed by nearly 22,000 interested parties. Last Thursday, the 157 delegates from UN member states met virtually for the first UN Summit on Food Systems.

Unfortunately, the summit was hardly able to meet these self-imposed expectations, which were probably too high:

Angebot auf einem Markt in Äthiopien, 2016. Food Systems: Hungry for Change

What is our food system and how can it become fairer?

Arbitrariness Instead Of Commitment

The summit relied heavily on voluntary commitments from a wide variety of actors. From NGOs to multinational corporations, all interested parties were asked to state what their contribution to improving the food system would look like. How these voluntary commitments will be followed up, however, is completely unclear. By addressing an entire bundle of actors in this way, there is a danger that governments will shirk their responsibilities. Furthermore, the results threaten to fall behind existing agreements such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. A long list of arbitrary commitments certainly presents a façade of progress, but it fails to provide concrete solutions to pave the way out of our multiple crises.

Minimal Solutions Instead Of System Change

In the preparatory process for the summit, a wealth of solutions was developed, especially for overcoming hunger and malnutrition and the unsustainable use of our natural resources. However, at the pre-summit in July, it became clear that the problems were to be solved in the individual countries. All countries were asked to draw up national action plans on how they intend to address the weaknesses in their food systems. While it is important and right to develop context-specific solutions, the one-sided focus on nation states negates global connections. 

The overarching aspects were thus largely ignored at the summit; power imbalances in the trade and financial system were not addressed, and the contextually appropriate and fundamental restructuring of our economic system was excluded. But these complex issues need to be addressed centrally at the multilateral level - which is what the United Nations was once founded for. What we see is an attempt to make the existing system more efficient, but this will not be enough to provide adequate nutrition for all people, including future generations.

Outlook: What Matters Now

The summit was an important start; the mere fact that a large number of actors addressed "food systems" at the highest level for the first time is a success, albeit one inadequate to the grand announcements. What matters now in terms of the results of the summit is the following:

But this can only be the beginning of real systemic change.

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