World leaders face litmus test on hunger at UN Food Systems Summit

Countries pledge investments, school meals, Indigenous rights

Secretary-general António Guterres (left) opens the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit. UN Photo, Eskinder Debebe
27 September 2021
27 September 2021

The world’s food systems have failed and need a comprehensive overhaul to support the billions of people who are bearing the brunt of multiple crises, according to participants at the inaugural UN Food Systems Summit in New York.

Around 30,000 people attended the digital conference, which was two years in the making and aimed to accelerate progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 amid the global challenges of hunger, climate change, poverty, inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Food system” is an all-encompassing term that includes every person and process involved in the growing, distribution, preparation and eating of food: from farmers and supermarket workers to chefs and truck drivers. The World Bank estimates that the global food system is worth roughly USD 8 trillion – about a tenth of the world economy.

The UN Food Systems Summit followed decades of international efforts to ensure food security and nutrition for all. Yet around 3 billion people are still unable to afford or access a healthy diet, and as many as 811 million people faced hunger last year. Meanwhile, around a third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted, and the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed serious deficiencies in food systems.

“Malnutrition, hunger and famine are not forces of nature – they are the result of the actions or inactions of all of us,” UN secretary-general António Guterres said in his opening statement. “We need to ramp up emergency food and nutrition systems in areas affected by conflict or climate emergencies. We need to invest in early-warning famine prevention systems, and we need to shockproof all of the systems that contribute to nutrition – from food systems themselves to health, water and sanitation.”

Promises abound

Deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed and Luigi Di Maio, minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy, hold a closing press conference during the pre-summit. UN Photo

A participant at the UN Food Systems pre-summit. UN Photo

Statements and pledges were heard from more than 85 heads of state and leaders from over 150 nations, along with a diverse range of participants, including farmers, fishers, women, Indigenous peoples, youth, civil society and the private sector.

Around 300 commitments from five action areas were received from around the world in support of national and regional pathways to sustainable food systems.

“As young people, we are ready to take the responsibility, but we ask you to honor your commitments,” said Mike Khunga, a youth advocate from Malawi who was vice chair of an action track at the summit. “We are not the leaders of tomorrow – we are leading today.”

Dozens of session speakers took the floor, including David Malpass of the World Bank Group, Jessica Vega Ortega from the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, José Andres of the World Central Kitchen in Haiti, Reema Nanavaty of the Self-Employed Women’s Association and Thanawat Tiensin from the Committee on World Food Security.

During the two-day event, the School Meals Coalition was launched to provide a healthy meal for every child every day, while the U.S. pledged USD 5 billion to Feed the Future – the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative – as part of its USD 10 billion investment over five years to transform food systems.

Melinda Gates also announced a new USD 922 million, five-year investment in nutritious food systems on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Preparing for a turning point

Deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed and Luigi Di Maio, minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy, hold a closing press conference during the pre-summit. UN Photo
Deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed and Luigi Di Maio, minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy, hold a closing press conference during the pre-summit. UN Photo

The summit, which took place alongside the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, was the culmination of an 18-month process in which 148 countries hosted Summit Dialogues with food system participants to develop strategies for more inclusive, resilient and sustainable practices to prevent hunger and enhance nutrition.

“Food systems have incredible power to end hunger, build healthier lives and sustain our beautiful planet,” Agnes Kalibata, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for the summit, said in the opening session. “This summit is a turning point for our food systems. But the hard work starts now, here.”

Before the summit, organizers were at pains to dispel claims that corporate interests were overrepresented in the summit’s agenda, leading to boycotts from various food system stakeholders, who staged a rival event during the same week as the summit.

Nevertheless, prior to the Summit, around 100,000 people participated in the Summit Dialogues; 100 million farmers provided input from all parts of the world; 100,000 youth pledged to create change; and more than 2,000 ideas for action were submitted, of which 400 came from farmer and producer groups, Indigenous communities and civil society, according to the UN.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her country would join the Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems Coalition, while Honduras, Samoa, Peru and the Philippines pledged support for Indigenous rights.

“Indigenous food systems truly are game-changers. Food systems transformation cannot happen without them,” said Myrna Cunningham Kain, president of the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC).

Several notable commitments were made at the summit to support gender equality and recognize the potential of women and girls in food systems. One project aims to boost food production by 56 percent in Nigeria by training women in 60 communities on how to farm and prepare safe food for consumption and commercial purposes at low cost. Another initiative plans to replicate the success of its program in India by integrating women and youth in all stages of the food supply chain in other countries.

The secretary-general plans to lead a global stock-taking process every two years to review progress on the commitments made at the summit, according to the UN.

“Children can’t eat empty promises,” said World Food Programme executive director David Beasley. “It’s up to us to deliver and make food security and nutrition a reality.”


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