The United Nations convenes its first-ever Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September to trigger potentially bold action for positive transformation in the way we produce, distribute and consume food. This is a laudable ambition that’s urgently needed.
Our food system is the one of the biggest emitters of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the pandemic woke everyone up to just how fragile those food systems are. Supply chain disruption and food price volatility — particularly in developing countries — have undone decades of gains in global food and nutrition security.
But the Biden administration’s “building back better” agenda is galvanizing global efforts for a more sustainable and resilient world like never before.
To maintain that momentum, and to avoid reverting back to business as usual, events like the UNFSS offer unique opportunities to make tangible commitments that help us change course.
Through a series of pre-summit endeavors like the hundreds of “Food Systems Summit Dialogues” — which could be organized by anyone — the summit facilitators earnestly maintained a broad and inclusive approach. But the broader summit agenda-setting process has resulted is a lengthy wish list of everyone’s pet projects and demands. The UN announced in April that more than 1,200 ideas had already been put forward. With so many competing priories, there is a real danger that nothing will be a priority in the end.
Aside from occasional references to climate, it’s simply not a top priority. This is a missed opportunity to tackle head on the single biggest threat to food systems with a sense of unity.
For the UNFSS to not put climate front and center of the agenda — as UN Secretary General António Guterres hoped in his initial call to hold the summit — is unacceptable given the scale of the climate crisis.
We've seen how the scientific community finds itself in two different camps: climate researchers, as well as food and agriculture. Too often, efforts to fund research in either camp are seen as a zero-sum game, with one camp guarding its financial support against the other.
Such turf wars are seen elsewhere. The build-up to UNFSS has stirred animosity between business and civil society — two groups that must collaborate more, not less, in addressing climate change.
Additionally, the dialogues which are setting the agenda for the UN COP26 climate summit in November are mostly disconnected from UNFSS dialogues.
Climate and agricultural science can and should work in harmony. All of us should partner to deepen our insights and catalyze action.
Sadly, the language and priorities of the UNFSS bring us no closer to achieving such a vision for action-focused research in climate-smart agriculture.
So, where do we go from here?
More than a hundred partner organizations came together under a global initiative one year ago to set out 11 actions that can transform food systems under climate change.
The key to this transformation is thinking big. There’s a saying: Pilots never fail, but pilots never scale. We know what works; we just need to deliver projects with the level of ambition to meet the challenge.
Of course, we must practically anchor ourselves around certain principles like livelihoods, inclusion and vulnerability.
To support livelihoods, we must fuse innovative partnerships with “unusual suspects" to help governments incubate the right conditions for tools and technologies that reach every farmer and entrepreneur. This grows incomes while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
To be inclusive, we must accelerate agricultural innovation that meets the needs of people, nature and climate. This one of the core themes of the UK’s presidency of the UN COP26 climate summit, and together with the FCDO we’re building a global alliance to secure the investment needed.
Finally, to ensure we do not leave the most vulnerable behind, we have to mainstream climate science into crisis and peacebuilding operations in fragile regions around the world.
There is still time for UN member states to put real political weight behind the “building back better” agenda and push for ambitious commitments on climate at UNFSS.
As Greta Thunberg so passionately argued at the Austrian World Summit, climate action should not be a game of distracting theatrics, but deep-rooted radical change that addresses the existential threat we face.
In this “mega year” for diplomacy — with major international summits on food, climate and biodiversity — is a test of world’s ambition to deliver a climate-smart future. if we don’t focus now, we could fail.
Ana María Loboguerrero, Ph.D., is head of Global Policy Research for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.