UN Food Systems Summit 2021

World nutrition under close scrutiny

Our food systems will require profound transformation if we are to eliminate hunger and all forms of malnutrition by the year 2030. With the holding of the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has now declared the obviously flawed world food system a top priority. Yet there are very real doubts as to whether the UN summit will be able to introduce the urgently needed changes rather than merely reinforce the present model of industrialised food production. Following is an assessment by Malte Reshöft, our officer responsible for food and market systems.

Malte Reshöft
Georg Tedeschi

Interview: Corina Bosshard
Fotograf: Georg Tedeschi, Thomas Freteur

The 2030 Agenda has set the goal of eliminating hunger and malnutrition in all its forms from the world by the year 2030. Where do things stand with this goal? Can it still be achieved? In other words, what is the present world food situation?
Regrettably, the picture is not a good one. After years of declining numbers of starving people, the figures started rising again in 2014. This is attributable mainly to climate change and its impacts on the harvests of many vitally important products. The upshot is higher food prices, which are now proving unaffordable for many people.

How has the COVID pandemic impacted the food situation in Sudan? What are you observing in HEKS/EPER projects?
COVID-19 meant that roughly another 120 million people were affected by hunger in 2020. Many have lost their jobs owing to Covid measures such as lockdowns or curfews. Many of the poorest people work in the informal sector and have no social security. Local markets were also closed down in many places, and the fallout has been disastrous for numerous farmers and consumers. Specifically, I've had recent reports on projects in South Sudan and Bangladesh to the effect that COVID has significantly compounded the already tense situation in both countries.

The UN Food Systems Summit is now set for late September 2021. Some aid agencies are being critical of this summit. Why? Isn't it a good thing for the topic to be dealt with in the international arena?
It is indeed a very good and meaningful thing that the topic of food in its broadest sense is being addressed. The new term "food systems" also makes sense. That is not what is being criticised.
The criticism is mainly of the way the summit came about. Rather than through an initiative by the democratically legitimised and competent UN body, the summit took shape through a kind of back-door deal between the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the UN Secretary-General. 
This meant that the Rome-based Committee for Food Security (CFS) was almost denied its traditional leading role in shaping international food policy. This is alarming because, in addition to multilateral players and business sector representatives, the CFS also includes civil society representatives who can ensure that the views of small farmers are also heard.
In the run-up to the summit, its organisation was such that civil society players were considerably weakened, while multinational corporations became overrepresented. The voice of small farmers, who account for some 70 per cent of food production, had too little weight. We want to change that.

What exactly is the UN expecting from the business sector?
The UN is hoping that the considerable market power of these corporations will constitute a strong boost for improving the current situation. It is a question of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and losses along the entire value chain. But to be sure that I am not being misunderstood, let me state that we too are convinced that feeding the world can only be done in concert with the corporations. What we are questioning is the precise role to be played by these corporations.

What then would be the HEKS/EPER "recipe against hunger"? Who is expected to take on the task of solving the problems and what would be the role of business?
This is about finding a solution that is commensurate with the challenges facing us. The food sector alone generates about a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and at the same time, food production is being hit very hard by climate change. This alone illustrates the twofold connection with the topic: on the one hand, a polluter, and the other hand, a victim.
We are firmly convinced that the only way to meet the various challenges facing humankind is through food systems that are inspired principally by the notions of "localism" and "circular economy". These are not exclusive criteria but rather targets that indicate the direction in which things should be moving. But this still runs somewhat counter to the logic of transnational corporations. The present food system, which is so highly dependent on imports and exports, is therefore not sustainable. The same is true of production systems that are extremely input-dependent. This is where it becomes crucially important to have "agro-ecological" solutions which are based on locally available resources and clearly recognise and appropriately promote the role of small farmers as the principal producers of food.

We hope that these topics will figure prominently at the September summit and in the negotiations with corporations.

Medienmitteilung BLW Welternährung
Thomas Freteur