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If food systems transformation is to succeed, we need to address the elephants in the summit
Next week, more than 1,200 participants from 160 countries – including heads of state and government ministers – will descend on Rome/Italy to take stock of the progress on food systems transformation since the landmark UN Food Systems Summit in 2021.
I was involved in that Summit because I believed it was the biggest opportunity to transform food systems, as growing scientific evidence pointed to our current path being unsustainable, unhealthy and unjust. And it had some successes: massive public engagement, an inclusive process involving hundreds of discussions, countries developing “pathways” for transformation and so on. But there were disappointments, too. The Summit’s final outcome statement and its creation of a Food Systems Coordination Hub were never going to be enough to catalyse the massive and fundamental changes we need.
Now, two years on, comes the Summit’s “Stocktaking Moment”, where the UN, countries and observers look at what the 2021 get-together has actually achieved. I expect the results will be underwhelming: global hunger continues to grow, malnutrition is persistent, and climate change and biodiversity loss are accelerating. And as last week’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report showed, we are not on track to ending hunger by 2030.
While there are multiple levers for policy-makers to transform food systems, I want to bring attention to the elephants in the room: the organisations that make up the so-called “international system” for food and agriculture. These could have an overwhelmingly positive impact in driving food systems transformation, but they seem to be unable to rise to the challenge.
Organisations in the international system include the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which offers countries technical assistance and the World Food Program, which delivers emergency food relief to countries in crisis. There are also the International Fund for Agricultural Development which provides long-term financing to countries’ farming sectors, and CGIAR, which undertakes agricultural research to underpin these efforts.
These organisations are crucial to the food system, and billions of dollars of public money is spent on them every year. Recognising this, the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit called on UN country teams to advance action at the national level to bring these different agencies together. However, I don’t see any of the organisations stepping up.
I believe this architecture is unfit for the purpose of transforming food systems. All of the organisations were set up decades ago to tackle different sets of problems to what we face now. The challenges we are currently confronted with lie at the intersection of issues such as climate change, malnutrition, conflict and food insecurity. These require broad, inclusive thinking. But FAO, for example, has been criticised for its ‘silo culture’, which sees little coordination between departments with overlapping areas of interest – the exact opposite of what we need. If the agency itself is unable to address this issue internally, how can it support nations to make changes to vast and complex food systems? I don’t think it can. Similarly, CGIAR’s ill-adapted priorities and ongoing cycles of internal reform have also been criticised. While many of these organisations talk a good game in terms of how their work aims to transform food systems, the proof is in the pudding, and there has, sadly, been very little impact.
I believe we need to revolutionise the international system if we are to transform food systems, otherwise we will be stuck with more window dressing. While I recognise the need for these institutions and that it is necessary to commit even more resources, the international system will not deliver the results we require without significant reform.
I think we need to call on their funders – governments, philanthropists and the private sector – to do the following:
- Agree on a comprehensive funding framework for food systems transformation that contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris and Montreal targets, and then fund these institutions based on the framework. This will help ensure that the activities of these institutions align to the global need to make food systems more sustainable. Such a framework needs to be science based and can perhaps come from a dedicated mechanism, such as a food systems equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the EAT Lancet 2 commission.
- Ensure accountability to the framework. Once funding is allocated, ensure that the organisations meet their targets through rigorous and transparent monitoring. If they do not deliver, cut their budgets.
- Phase out parts of the system that we no longer need. The international system for food and agriculture has a tendency to create new committees, units and bodies which, once created, seem to exist for perpetuity – even once the need for them has passed. Bold leadership from the system’s funders should encourage – perhaps even demand – phasing out those parts of the system that have become obsolete. This will ensure a sharper focus, and better value for money.
Unless these issues are addressed, I fear that food systems transformation will remain a distant dream. I call for the establishment of a commission to look into these elephants in the Summit, assess how efficient and fit for purpose the international system is and update the entire system to respond to the current challenges.