First UN Food Systems Summit seeks new recipe for healthy people and planet

In a historic first, the United Nations will host the inaugural Food Systems Summit on Thursday, uniting global leaders in a drive to find novel ways to produce healthy fare for the world’s growing population without harming the planet.

Observers hope the event, held during the UN General Assembly in New York, will mark the start of a new era of sustainable food production and consumption.

The summit brings together governments, businesses, farmers, indigenous peoples, youth, academics and citizens to produce a detailed roadmap to a world where good food is affordable and accessible and produced with minimal damage to the natural systems that sustain life on Earth. The event is expected to yield announcements from more than 85 heads of state and government officials on all aspects of the global food systems – from school meals to food waste to unlocking agricultural innovation to deliver on climate goals.

The pledges are the result of an 18-month preparatory process during which 148 countries hosted a programme of national dialogues to develop strategies for more inclusive, resilient and sustainable food systems. Before the summit, some 93 countries submitted national pathways to reinvent their food systems.

“Over the past 18 months, as the pandemic physically pushed us apart, the Food Systems Summit brought people together through a remarkable process of global engagement,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said ahead of Thursday’s meeting.“They united around a simple idea: food can help us accelerate actions and bring in solutions to achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals and recover better from COVID-19.” 

The pandemic has shown how fragile and vulnerable humanity’s food systems are. According to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, 811 million were undernourished in 2020, an increase of 118 million from 2019. Conversely, UNEP’s research has found that 17 per cent of the world’s food is thrown away.

Food systems reform is critical to tackling the climate emergency. They are responsible for 70 per cent of the water extracted from nature, generate up to one-third of human-linked greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture has been identified as the threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 species (over 86%) at risk of extinction.

In her opening address at the summit, Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director signalled a few steps to help make the shift towards a sustainable food system. These included: strengthening action around the Rio Conventions on issues such as climate change, desertification, biodiversity in agriculture and forestry; repurposing agricultural support; and addressing the increasing demand for cheaper food in wealthy countries, which is leading to intensive agriculture and moving farming further away from nature’s regenerative systems.

“We at the United Nations Environment Programme are committed to joining up with other UN agencies – as one UN – in supporting countries as they implement ambitious commitments to transform our relationship with food – for people and for the planet,” she said.

Called as part of the Decade of Action for delivery on the Sustainable Development Goals, the Food Systems Summit aims to address global challenges, such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality.

“Our food systems – local, regional, and global – are central to delivering this agenda,”  said Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the Food Systems Summit. “There is no net zero pathway for countries or communities without transformation of our food systems.”

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is playing a critical role in the transition towards sustainable food systems. UNEP is a contributor to the One Planet Network Sustainable Food Systems Programme, leading the development of a guideline for collaborative policymaking and improved governance. It is also and a member of the Transformative Partnership Platform, informing donors and policymakers and fostering innovation. UNEP is also the custodian of the food waste element of SDG 12.3, which aims to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains.

UN Environment