Global food systems can only be truly transformed with a people’s summit

Long before the emergence of COVID-19, it was well-accepted that the world was off-course to achieve most of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, including ending hunger. But recovering from the pandemic to deliver any of the 17 SDGs relies now more than ever on first feeding the world.

Yet as COVID-19 spread, the reported number of hungry people rocketed upward after three decades of progress, with worse still likely to come in some regions as farmers contend with an unprecedented number of extreme weather events as well as the impact of the pandemic.

There is no denying that current food and agricultural market systems and power dynamics have not worked for all countries and all communities, particularly the most marginalized and vulnerable.

But before the world can transform food systems to better provide for a growing population facing new and emerging challenges, countries, governments, and the public must also transform the way they engage with and think about entire food systems.

Not only does the planet need improved policies, markets, and processes, it also needs new mechanisms for developing this reimagined system, from the first seed to the last spoonful.

There is no single group responsible for transforming food systems to be more inclusive, nutritious, sustainable, and resilient. The responsibility for a functioning food system is shared between public and private sectors, companies and consumers, authorities and individuals, which is why it can only be transformed by sharing platforms, ideas, and learnings on a global level like never before.

Success stories during the pandemic have offered hope for what can be achieved when people around the world are enabled and encouraged to join forces for good.

In the past year, the world has crowdsourced meals for hungry and vulnerable families, watched young climate campaigners hold their own “mock” COP26 talks, and awarded the United Nations’ humanitarian food aid program the Nobel Peace Prize.

These precious highlights offer lessons for transforming food systems in what is a “make or break” year, and the UN Food Systems Summit must make full use of them.

The whole world can benefit from talking and listening to one another to share experiences of every stage of the food system.—

 A crucial first step was last year’s 24-hour conversation online where smallholder farmers, Indigenous people, and students were given the opportunity to engage on the same platform as world leaders, policymakers, and researchers to share ideas on what is working in their food systems and what needs to improve.

Democratizing the discussion about food systems is vital because people do not eat ideas and policies, they eat food grown and delivered by other people, who work in fields, in factories, in research labs, in distribution centers, in shops, and in restaurants. It is all of these people who have the knowledge, insights, and understanding to help improve the system at large and make it more inclusive, more sustainable, and more resilient.

But we must keep up this momentum to expand the conversation to involve everyone with a stake in food systems until we arrive at the solutions that will end hunger and malnutrition, protect the environment, and increase equity.

This is why we are also hosting the Food Systems Summit Dialogues, to provide structured opportunities for conversations at every level, from U.N. member states to the individual.

We are not starting from scratch — we already know many of the problems afflicting our food systems. And there are existing policy solutions such as the Committee on World Food Security’s “Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems,” and the European Union’s “Farm to Fork” strategy, which lay solid foundations.