Of all the reasons why 2021 may go down in history, the first UN Food Systems Summit may yet have the longest-lasting impact worldwide, writes Agnes Kalibata.
Dr Agnes Kalibata is the UN Special Envoy for Food Systems Summit.
Uniting 164 countries around the concept that food is not just something we grow or eat, but an entire web of connections between people, planet and prosperity, was no simple task.
Nevertheless, two years in the making, this Summit put the transformation of food systems at the top of the global agenda as the single most powerful opportunity to end hunger and malnutrition, tackle climate change, and reduce inequality.
And yet the true legacy of the Summit, which seeks to leverage food systems to make up ground on our interconnected global challenges, will depend on national governments turning promises into policies and concrete actions in the months ahead.
Time and again in the lead-up to the Summit, we heard from key players across the food system that it falls to governments, more than any other group, to take action, guide actions, and manage and monitor actions that are taken as a result.
More than 110 countries have now set out their national pathways for food systems transformation over the years ahead, and by focusing on three core areas in 2022, policymakers around the world can lead the change that will revolutionise food systems for the better and all.
The first way governments can inspire this transformation is by leading and enabling more partnerships and greater levels of collaboration.
One of the strongest areas of consensus during the Summit was the need to find new ways of working across food systems, which requires mutual support and cooperation between companies, communities and constituencies.
More than 80 countries called for collaboration and cooperation in their statements at the Summit.
Therefore, it was not surprising that some 30 coalitions emerged through the Summit, bringing together countries with different profiles, resources, and needs to pursue shared goals, whether it was better childhood nutrition through school feeding, support for producers and indigenous communities or sustainable production practices.
Countries have an opportunity to build on these initiatives and continue to develop new forms of collaboration and partnership with the support of UN agencies through a Food Systems Coordination Hub, which begins work on January 1, 2022.
Secondly, governments can maintain the momentum of the Summit by developing policies that support sustainable food systems. The Summit unearthed the concept of the “true value of food”, which acknowledges the hidden environmental and health costs of existing food systems and the savings that transforming them would bring.
In the same spirit of cooperation, nations can leverage some of the frameworks already in place. Take, for instance, the upcoming international Summits like the G7 under the presidency of Germany in 2022, where declarations on repurposing agricultural subsidies and reducing food waste would have the potential to set an example for the rest of the world on rethinking how we invest in food systems.
Meanwhile, the COP27 climate talks hosted by Egypt in November offer an unmissable opportunity to reinforce the links between food systems and climate change, between national food systems transformation pathways and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and between climate change and the need for adaptation and resilience, which is especially important for Africa. These are real opportunities to advance the partnerships needed to address these challenges.
Finally, governments have the power to protect access to safe, healthy and nutritious food, particularly for marginalised populations such as women and girls, Indigenous Peoples and the rural poor.
One of the most vocal groups to participate in the more than 1,000 independent dialogues that prefaced the Summit was young people, who called on governments to treat access to nutritious food as a basic human right amid concerns over how much their generation is impacted by unhealthy diets.
Policies that help redirect and repurpose support for food systems would also help create new opportunities for livelihoods among youth, who are fast leaving farming and agribusiness while capitalising on the talent and innovation that the next generation can offer.
At the same time, policymakers must ensure that vulnerable groups are not left further behind in the efforts to accelerate the post-pandemic recovery.
This means prioritising healthy school meals for every child, and better access to land, water and fishing rights for those whose livelihoods depend on them.
Smallholder farmers, fishers, indigenous communities and others need these policies to liberate themselves from the chains of poverty that now often define their lives.
The Summit may be over, but the urgency of addressing multiple shared challenges through food systems remains, and food systems action is just taking off.
Governments and all of their partners will be asked to account for their progress in an official stocktaking every two years, which means the real work must start now.
We have only eight years remaining to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For the history books to show that this was the turning point for world progress, leaders must make every year count, starting with 2022.