UN Food Systems Summit: Breakthrough or Missed Opportunity?

Secretary-General António Guterres (seated between flags) opens the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit that will serve as a historic opportunity to empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to drive our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and get us back on track to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Gödöllő, Hungary, Nov. 4 2021 (IPS) – UNSG Antonio Guterres convened the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit, which took place on Sept. 23-24. The Summit preparation had a well-designed structure with remarkable and appreciated leadership of Amina Mohammed, UN DSG. Due to the hard work of the UN Special Envoy, Agnes Kalibata, and her whole Team, the organisation and logistics of the Summit was excellent.

The Summit’s main outcome is the Secretary-General’s Chair Summary and Statement of Action, “calling on the world to keep its promises for a better future through food systems that work for people, planet and prosperity”. This Statement was not negotiated in an inter-governmental process and it is not legally binding. Still, it has a series of powerful messages trying to orient stakeholders in their policy decisions.

In order to involve the broader public and to bring together a diversity of stakeholders, Food Systems Summit Dialogues were proposed. National Dialogues were organized by governments, but also regional and global dialogues were held in order to align with global events on major issues like climate, environment, health, economies and jobs, humanitarian aid and water. The Synthesis Reports analyse the outcomes of 850+ Dialogues, in which 100,000 people from around the world participated.

In spite of its virtual setting, the Summit gathered 37,000 registered delegates and was viewed by more than 50,000 people from 193 countries. 165 Member States delivered statements, 78 of which were delivered by Heads of State or Government, clearly confirming that the Summit was very much timely and relevant. To share an overview of the engagement process and the richness of findings, knowledge generated in the lead up to the Summit, a Food Systems Summit Compendium was posted online.

Considering these impressive figures, the Summit seems to be a huge success. In fact, it had a number of positive outcomes, but the most important achievement is that the Summit took place and generated a lot of insightful discussions at local, national and global level.

Was the Summit a real success? Was it a Breakthrough or a Missed Opportunity? It was undoubtedly a success from the above perspective, but looking at some details below, the picture is more complex and nuanced.

1. The Summit was not sufficiently inclusive, important stakeholders were not around the table, such as organisations representing hundreds of millions of the rural poor, including smallholders, family farmers, indigenous peoples’ groups and many others. The Summit had a “Top-down” start and the whole process remained influenced by powerful groups’ interests.

2. A Scientific Group was created with a number of outstanding professionals to provide inputs and advice to the Summit process by channelling in a wide range of relevant scientific knowledge. It was unfortunate that the composition of the Scientific Group was unbalanced with mainly natural/technological scientists and economists and almost completely missing social scientists.

3. The Summit has not clearly identified and adequately addressed the root causes. For example poverty and inequalities, along with the rights-based approach, have not received sufficient attention during the Summit process.

4. As a matter of fact, corporations control an increasing share of resources and use their power to influence policy decisions. (Although Jeffrey Sachs eloquently said at the Pre-Summit: “…behave, pay your taxes, and follow the rules. That’s what businesses should do.”…). This conflict of interest, and the existing power imbalances in favour of multinationals, are major obstacles to transformation. Still, this has not been addressed at all at the Summit.

5. The most important missing element is the absence of a call for an overall sustainability assessment, based on evidence and neutral science. These assessments, following the principle of True Costs Accounting, could cover all positive and negative externalities of all food systems and quantify them. Results of these assessments should be given due considerations by policy makers while preparing appropriate incentives for sustainable solutions and for repurposing subsidies (currently provided mainly to unsustainable models).

6. As a great achievement, a series of local and national commitments and various coalitions of action have been launched, but the Summit has eventually failed to provide global guidance. Even if a single corporation wished to transform its food systems to become sustainable, it will not put at the risk its competitiveness.

7. In the follow-up FAO, IFAD and WFP should have a prominent role, but food systems transformation is a much broader issue than their areas of competence. The UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) was created exactly for that kind of purpose. It is the foremost inclusive, multistakeholder body, providing possibilities also for UNEP, WHO, ILO along with the private sector, civil society and academia to discuss the way forward and to report to FAO and to ECOSOC. Furthermore, the CFS HLPE is there to provide neutral, science-based analysis, assessments and reporting. Instead of creating new science-policy interface.

All in all, the Summit was a success, but definitely not the desired breakthrough. Rather, this Summit proved to be a Missed Opportunity, due to the lack of global policy guidance and due to ignoring some key issues. It can only be hoped that a more inclusive follow-up will help bring the process back to the right track.

Zoltán Kálmán
Retired ambassador, former Permanent Representative of Hungary to FAO, IFAD, WFP. Member of the UNFSS Advisory Committee (2020-2021)

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