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Ensuring UN Food Systems Summit Makes an Impact

With nearly a third of the world’s population lacking steady access to adequate food, it’s no secret that our food systems are failing. As diet-related diseases skyrocket, global temperatures rise, and ecosystem collapse looms closer, the stakes are growing with each passing year. The need to correct course presents one of the biggest challenges of our generation, spanning health, climate, biodiversity, jobs, trade, infrastructure, diet, and human rights.

Luckily, there is an opportunity for action coming — September’s United Nations Food Systems Summit will put the global spotlight on the people and interconnected processes involved in producing, providing, and consuming food for the first time.

UNFSS can be a leap forward in the global journey toward a nutritious, regenerative, and equitable food future but only if we follow through on its promise to be a people’s summit, and a solutions summit. The day after the summit and every day moving forward, we must channel the summit’s energy together into actions that tangibly solve the myriad problems we’re facing today.

Food systems are inherently interdisciplinary, spanning environmental and equity issues, cultural and health dimensions, and beyond.

I attended the three-day UNFSS Pre-Summit, which brought together representatives from more than 100 countries in July. I felt the collective enthusiasm that can make the September summit a groundbreaking moment. Many people have shared valid criticism about the same voices who have always made the decisions on food systems continuing to dominate summit conversations.

But in Rome, I was encouraged to see a more inclusive picture: Civil society representatives, food producers, Indigenous peoples, and youth all exchanging ideas to build a more sustainable, equitable, resilient, and nutritious future. Democratizing food systems is a long-term project — we are not there yet, but the summit is attempting to take steps in the right direction.

Another promising sign is the range of ideas emerging around the summit to put food systems on a 10-year pathway toward achieving the SDGs by 2030. Thousands of groundbreaking solutions have been proposed. Five hundred were submitted via the Food Systems Game Changers Lab, an initiative to support and connect problem solvers to build a better food future for everyone, everywhere.

These innovators are pursuing cutting-edge ideas that straddle priorities such as reducing food loss and waste, innovating protein, and mainstreaming regenerative farming practices. Solutions include converting invasive sea urchins into fertilizer and setting up women-owned farming cooperatives that offer technologies and training to bridge the agricultural gender gap.

On the sidelines of the summit, they’ll link up with national, regional, and local governments; corporate partners; U.N. agencies; funders; and other supportive actors to take these innovative ideas to scale.

This is all incredibly exciting, but these solutions and the summit aren’t ends in themselves. After everyone heads home, what will it take for the summit to be a catalyst for the radical changes we need?

First, food systems are inherently interdisciplinary, spanning environmental and equity issues, cultural and health dimensions, and beyond. So we need to push for truly “good food” that lives up to our aspirations in all these traditionally siloed areas, embracing dietary patterns built through food systems that are nourishing, regenerative, and equitable.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, we are working to make a quality diet accessible to everyone. That goes beyond focusing on the nutritional value of the food we eat — we also look at how to produce those foods in a way that regenerates the planet, respects workers, and makes healthy diets accessible to everyone. It is complicated, but it is critical that we think and work this way.

While national commitments and global coalitions are a promising first step, ministries of health, agriculture, energy, labor, and more need to be working together beyond the summit to make lasting solutions to food system failures. Countries including Ghana, Rwanda, and Malawi are already making headway on this, with interdisciplinary analyses of the current state of local food systems.

Second, the food community needs a coherent structure for accountability to hold up the commitments from the summit. This architecture could tap into existing governance structures such as the Committee on World Food Security.

Alternatively, the summit could catalyze something entirely new: An interdisciplinary food systems funding mechanism akin to The Global Fund, for example, which emerged from a 2001 UN meeting on HIV and has since saved over 38 million lives.

Beyond the pre-summit, we also must continue connecting and amplifying newly energized advocates — a new generation that is attuned to how our food affects the health of people and the planet can help keep leaders accountable in the long term.

Lastly, to know whether we are making progress, we’ll need quality data that measures what really matters — accounting for the complex nature of food systems and zeroing in on the solutions that work best. The Food Systems Dashboard, developed by Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition and Johns Hopkins University, is a great start, measuring over 200 indicators including food input, supply, availability, affordability, and more.

Further, the forthcoming “Countdown to 2030” report — to be released in September — will offer a winnowed down suite of indicators to track the annual progress of food system transformation. We need to take this a step further to provide policymakers with easy-to-access information to guide their decision-making and to help assess how countries are progressing as a whole.

The ideas being shared at UNFSS will provide a path to support a better food future. My team is focusing on a few areas where we see potential to make leaps toward greener and more nourishing food systems, including delivering healthy school meals to kids, supporting nature-positive farming, and deploying renewable energy throughout supply chains.

Others, across many sectors and geographies, are pushing toward different but equally critical goals. As we look to the future, we must learn from those who’ve come before us and elevate Indigenous wisdom. Much like mastering a complex recipe, we will need to join together to carefully combine and refine these diverse efforts to concoct food systems that nourish us and sustain our planet for generations to come.

This article originally appeared on Devex on August 31, 2021, and was reposted here with permission.