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An aerial view of farm machinery in the field harvesting wheat Idaho_EN9MDW
An aerial view of farm machinery in the field harvesting wheat Idaho. Credit: RMBrown / Alamy Stock Photo.
24 September 2021 16:09

Q&A: How did climate change feature at the UN Food Systems Summit?

Multiple Authors

Food and farmingQ&A: How did climate change feature at the UN Food Systems Summit?

The two-day UN Food Systems Summit concluded this week with around 150 countries announcing voluntary commitments to ensure more “resilient, inclusive and sustainable” food systems around the world.

Among the national strategies announced at the virtual meeting, Japan committed to decarbonising their food systems and Norway pledged to address deforestation impacts in supply chains. Others, such as New Zealand, spoke of the need to better monitor agricultural and deforestation emissions. 

These commitments were not the result of negotiations at the summit itself, but were ​​based on the dialogues and meetings that were held ahead of the event. They are also not legally binding and many do not have set timescales.

In addition, developing countries, such as Bangladesh, and island states, such as Cuba, asked wealthy countries to deliver on their existing climate finance commitments, help develop early-warning systems for extreme weather events, address food crises in the aftermath of such events, as well as lower trade and political barriers. 

A host of coalitions were announced and gained traction at the summit, including the Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems coalition and the School Meals Coalition.

However, the summit was not without its critics – a declaration signed by more than 500 organisations called for a boycott of the meeting in protest of the “ongoing corporate colonisation” of food systems.

Ultimately, few tangible commitments were announced at the summit. Not enough dealt with the systemic transformations necessary for the sector, Alberta Guerra, a senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA, tells Carbon Brief.

Guerra says that the solutions proposed at the summit “heavily focused” on innovation and technologies that “drive profits for corporations, but further marginalise smallholder food producers”. 

In this Q&A, Carbon Brief explains the background to the summit, what it aimed to achieve and what was said during the meeting.

What is the Food Systems Summit?

Billed by its organisers as both the “People’s Summit” and a “solutions summit”, the Food Systems Summit is a collaboration between several UN agencies, philanthropic foundations and private-sector organisations that aims to catalyse change in the way that food is produced and consumed around the world.

During the summit – which was held entirely virtually on 23 and 24 September – heads of state and government gave statements outlining commitments to making their countries’ “food systems” more “inclusive, resilient and sustainable”.

“Food system” is a catch-all term that is used to describe every part of the way humans produce, process, transport and consume food. Food systems are estimated to account for around one-third of global emissions, mostly from agricultural emissions and the associated land-use change. Agriculture is also one of the sectors that is most vulnerable to climate change. 

Prominent celebrities and philanthropists, such as José Andres, Pau Gasol and Melinda Gates, also addressed the summit. More than 80 heads of state and government delivered speeches at the virtual event. Ministers, vice-presidents, deputy prime ministers and first ladies from several dozen more countries also spoke. All told, more than 150 countries spoke at the event and announced their commitments to food systems transformation. 

Although the summit itself was only a day and a half long, a “pre-summit” held both in Rome and online in July laid the groundwork for the September meeting. Over the course of the three-day pre-summit, representatives of member states, non-governmental organisations and corporations gave remarks and held panels and roundtable discussions on a range of issues, including food-system resilience, equitable livelihoods and private-sector interests.

In the lead-up to the summit, the organisers also urged broad participation in the process via summit “dialogues” – webinars and discussions that aimed to encourage engagement with key groups, including youth activists, Indigenous groups and smallholder farmers. 

These discussions came in three forms: member state dialogues, which were organised by national governments; independent dialogues, which were put on by individuals and organisations; and global summit dialogues, which were held alongside other global events and were co-convened by the Food Systems Summit special envoy, Dr Agnes Kalibata.

In addition to 11 global dialogues, nearly 600 of these dialogues were held by member states, plus almost 1,000 were held independently. According to a synthesis report published this month that analysed recurring themes and participant data from 447 of the independent dialogues, more than 100,000 people around the world participated in the programme.

The summit was also guided by a scientific group comprising 29 researchers and academics hailing from six continents. Chaired by Joachim von Braun, the director of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn, the scientific group produced 11 reports that examined various components of the food system, as well as potential actions that countries and groups might take.

How did the summit come about?

António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, announced his intention to convene the Food Systems Summit during a video plenary address to the 46th session of the Committee on World Food Security on 16 October 2019 – World Food Day. During his remarks, Guterres drew links between worldwide hunger, climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He said:

“The climate emergency is an increasing threat to food security…It is time to change how we produce and consume, including to reduce greenhouse emissions.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends the UN food systems pre-summit via video link
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends the UN food systems pre-summit via video link. Credit: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo.

Food systems, Guterres noted, play a “crucial” role in addressing all of the 17 SDGs – a set of ambitions laid out by the UN in 2015 for achieving sustainable and equitable development worldwide by 2030. 

The summit stemmed from conversations with the three Rome-based UN agencies – the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) – during the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July 2019. These three agencies also provided the initial funding for the summit, but member states have since contributed as well, according to the summit website – although it does not list specific countries or contributions.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the summit was moved to an all-virtual format, with the conveners encouraging people to call in and participate from around the world. The secretary general and many of the speakers also stressed the importance of food systems transformation in rebuilding and recovering from the pandemic.

What was the summit designed to achieve?

The stated goal of the summit was to “deliver progress” on each of the SDGs by “leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges, such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality”. 

In a call to action in the weeks leading up to the summit, Guterres urged countries to make “ambitious commitments” to enact change in the way food is produced, processed, transported and consumed. 

Guiding the summit were five “action tracks” that outlined areas of focus:

  1. Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all
  2. Shift to sustainable consumption patterns
  3. Boost nature-positive production
  4. Advance equitable livelihoods
  5. Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress

Each “track” was guided by a chair, two vice-chairs and an “anchoring agency” of the UN, which served to provide technical assistance and expertise, as well as support for following up after the summit. These agencies were, respectively, the FAO, the World Health Organization, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, IFAD and the WFP. The five tracks each held three public forums and submitted two synthesis reports detailing potential solutions and actions to the Food Systems Summit secretariat in the lead-up to the summit. 

Unlike a Conference of the Parties (COP), no negotiations took place at the Food Systems Summit. Rather, heads of state and government, as well as representatives from other groups, made speeches and commitments based on the dialogues and meetings that were held before the summit was convened. 

Additionally, unlike at a COP, the outcomes of the Food Systems Summit are not legally binding. It is not clear what mechanisms for holding countries and other parties accountable to their commitments will be put in place.

During the summit, UN deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed announced that the secretary general will submit an annual progress report to the high-level political forum. Mohammed also said that the secretary general would convene a “stock-taking meeting” every two years to “ensure we continue to harness and direct this energy” towards building resilient food systems and achieving the SDGs. 

Ahead of the meeting, the UN released a set of goals for the summit. According to these goals, the summit was meant to:

  • “Dramatically elevat[e]” discussions about the role that food systems play in achieving the UN SDGs and how to create food systems that are healthy for both people and the planet.
  • Result in “significant action with measurable outcomes” towards achieving the SDGs, including both “highlighting existing solutions” and “calling for new actions” by countries, communities, corporations and citizens.
  • Establish a high-level set of principles to “guide” UN member states in “leverag[ing]” food systems towards supporting the SDGs. The principles will “set an optimistic and encouraging vision” for the role of food systems in achieving the goals.
  • Create a system for following up on and reviewing commitments to keep the momentum going on food systems change, share best practices among stakeholders and analyse the impact of the commitments and changes being made.

Who were the key stakeholders at the meeting?

The Food Systems Summit involved a wide range of groups, given the many intersections between food systems, climate change, labour, biodiversity and human rights. Interest groups that were actively involved ranged from UN bodies, multilateral and development banks, producers’ associations, farmers and NGOs through to scientists, UN member states and the private sector. 

Rome-based UN agencies

While Geneva is the home of the UN Human Rights Council and Bonn where UN Climate Change is headquartered, Rome is where its food, agriculture and rural development agencies sit. The FAO, WFP and IFAD are the three Rome-based UN agencies that work on food systems and security. 

Each plays a complementary role. The FAO produces research and analysis on food systems, knowledge on how to achieve SDGs that assists governments while also serving as a multilateral forum for negotiations. The WFP is the largest humanitarian agency in the world that is focused on ending hunger and malnutrition. IFAD, meanwhile, focuses on rural development and ending rural poverty and hunger, providing resources as loans or grants. 

Summit leadership

Dr Agnes Kalibata was appointed special envoy for the Food Systems Summit by the UN secretary general to provide direction and coordinate outreach and cooperation with all parties, including civil society and governments.

Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the 2021 Food Systems Summit_Flickr
Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. Credit: UN Photo Flickr / Giulio Napolitano.

An advisory group, chaired by UN deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed, was set up to provide guidance and feedback on the summit’s design and progress. The advisory group had approximately 30 members, including the heads of the FAO, WFP and IFAD, member state representatives, international organisations, and experts from various sectors. 

The summit’s scientific group, chaired by economist Prof Joachim von Braun of the University of Bonn, has 29 members including one representative from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), two from the FAO and Prof Martin Cole, chair of the panel of scientists that advise the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS).

In addition to these two groups, the summit has a network of more than a hundred “champions” tasked with mobilising support for the summit and its activities, drawn from across sectors and appointed by the special envoy. 

A UN Task Force chaired by the UN Environment Programme’s executive director Inger Andersen was responsible for coordinating and preparing for the summit across the UN system and multilateral organisations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Food systems governance in the UN

Established in 1974 and reformed in 2009 after the global food price crisis, the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is an inclusive, intergovernmental UN platform that works for food security and to end malnutrition. 

Like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, it hosts multilateral negotiations on a range of global food security and food systems issues. It reports to the UN General Assembly through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and to the FAO Conference.

The CFS has its own science-policy interface: the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE). 

Much like the IPCC, the HLPE is tasked with providing independent, expert and evidence-based assessments and advice when the CFS requests it. Its steering committee members contribute and participate as individual experts and do not represent their organisations or governments. HLPE reports are known to combine research across different scientific disciplines with dialogues with governments, civil society, communities and farmer unions and the private sector. 

The CFS has its own mechanisms to engage with communities, civil society and the private sector. 

The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) was formed in 2010 to engage  and participate in the CFS’ decisions. It has 11 global and 17 sub-regional units, no formal members and is composed of organisations who work on food and malnutrition. 

Organisations represent any of the 11 constituencies: smallholder farmers, Indigenous peoples, pastoralists, fisherfolk, agricultural and food workers, landless peoples, women, youth, consumers, urban food insecure and non-profit organisations. In all, organisations that participate in the CSM are estimated to represent 380m members

Besides bodies and agencies who work directly on food and malnutrition, many elements of food systems knowledge and policy are addressed by other UN bodies. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the IPCC contribute to knowledge around food systems, biodiversity and climate change. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is relevant to addressing important issues around agricultural labour. 

Other groups that added to the debate are the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), an independent group of multi-disciplinary experts promoting the transition to sustainable food systems.

Why did some groups boycott the summit?

The Food Systems Summit has been criticised by a range of different groups – farmers, academics, scientists and even UN special rapporteurs – ever since it was announced in 2019. Within three months, 550 civil society groups, universities and movements wrote to the UN secretary general calling for a reconsideration of the summit. 

On the day the summit opened, more than 600 groups and individuals announced they were boycotting it and organising parallel events

Several reasons have been cited for justifying a boycott: 

Multilateralism vs multistakeholderism

Summits, in “UN speak”, are gatherings of heads of UN member states to discuss issues of global importance. States collectively develop paths and each country pledges its contribution.

In the UN’s multilateral system, a member state, states or a regional or political grouping can typically call for summits. These are then facilitated by subject-specific UN agencies. The FAO, for instance, organised the food summits of 1996, 2002 and 2009 based on proposals by member states.

The UN Food Systems Summit 2021 was not proposed by a UN member state, but announced by UN secretary general António Guterres himself at a high-level political forum.

Many groups argue that the idea for the current summit came from the World Economic Forum (WEF), which signed a strategic partnership framework with the office of the secretary general in June 2019. The Food System Dialogues, where WEF was one of the five main sponsors, claim to serve as “a foundation and source of inspiration for the Food Systems Summit Dialogues” and WEF continues to play an active role in the summit.  

Despite its preeminent role in food systems governance, the Committee on World Food Security was not made one of the summit’s co-organisers, but initially relegated to the summit’s “champions group”.

In January 2020, Kalibata met with the committee’s chair Thanawat Tiensin, who extended an offer to collaborate with the summit and make use of the committee’s existing research and policy work. 

The call for the summit to actively engage with the committee was echoed by others within and outside the UN system, following which the body was given a place on the summit’s advisory committee in November 2020, but still not as a co-host. 

The sidelining of the committee continued to spark fears that human rights, civil society participation and UN-led multilateral food systems governance would not have a seat at the summit or have a bearing on its outcomes. 

This proved to be one of the key points of tension at the summit. Namely, that the “multi-stakeholder” approach – where all parties including corporations have a seat at the table, with no recognition of power differentials – replaced the “multilateralism” that has underlined inclusive UN global governance systems that are based in human rights and participation of the most vulnerable. 

Summit language referred to human rights, but only as a “lever of change” after it was suggested by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food Michael Fakhri. Unlike other “levers of change”, no separate team was formed on human rights and law until June 2021, says Fakhri, who also says in his report on the summit that he was not consulted to lead this team or human rights sessions at the pre-summit.  

Corporate ‘take-over’

WEF represents international agri-business actors as “partners”, including Reliance, Yara, Nestle and Coca-Cola, to name a few.

Guterres’ selection of Dr Agnes Kalibata as the special envoy for the summit fuelled fears among some campaigners of a “corporate take-over” of food systems governance and allegations of conflict of interest.

Kalibata is former president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) that favours intensive agriculture, which critics point out is currently showing signs of failure in many parts of the world. AGRA is primarily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, with private sector partners including pharmaceutical firm Bayer, agricultural company Syngenta and Nestle, the world’s largest food and drink company.

Many African civil society organisations wrote to Kalibata in May refusing to engage with the summit as “champions” unless it underwent radical changes.

Kalibata defended herself in the Guardian, saying that she had “lived through food insecurity” as a child, that the summit has been “designed to ensure every voice is heard” and “those choosing not to engage are self-excluding”.

However, the leadership team’s decision to press on with the summit in a virtual format during the pandemic when neither developing member states nor farmers could effectively participate added to fears of exclusion. “Many have complained that summit discussions have privileged the most equipped and powerful actors, especially the corporate sector,” wrote Fakhri in his report on the summit.  

On the day of the summit, there were little to no options for viewers to make interventions or participate on the virtual platform, with technical difficulties including with translation. 

Some campaigners have claimed that agroecology, Indigenous and experiential knowledge have been left out of summit preparations.

A new ‘IPCC for food’

Repeated calls for a new science-policy interface – or an “IPCC for food”– by Prof Joachim von Braun, the chair of the summit’s scientific group, have been a cause for concern for scientists, academics, human rights experts, civil society groups and food systems agencies themselves. 

This was a call von Braun echoed at the summit, too. “Governance must be addressed, an intergovernmental panel for food would make sense,” he said, adding that “blockchain” and “digital technologies” had been under-deployed in transforming food systems and that “bio-science and genetics are nature-based too”. He asked nations to commit 1% of their food income to food systems research.

First, critics highlight, creating new institutions is not within the mandate of the chair of the scientific group.

Second, the summit’s scientific group in its current format does not offer enough expertise to meet the interdisciplinary challenge of feeding a hungry, warming world where inequalities are growing. 

Of the scientific group’s 29 members, 20 are natural scientists and nine, including the chair, are economists. The group had no social scientists from other disciplines, noted the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, in a special report on the summit. 

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Another criticism is that the new scientific group is technocratic and lacks the transparency, accountability and participatory mechanisms inherent to the CFS and the HLPE, according to researchers, scientists and academics. Creating a new science-policy interface could undermine existing mechanisms that are based on negotiations, inclusive dialogues and decision-making on food systems issues, they add.  

In May 2021, members of the HLPE’s steering committee wrote an open letter ahead of the summit, saying that they had not been engaged, the summit failed to draw from their expertise and a new food systems science-policy interface would be akin to “re-invent[ing] the wheel”. Members say the creation of a new science-policy interface would mean losing time, “not to mention further fragmentation and duplication of international food policy governance”. 

In a press conference at the summit, UN deputy secretary general Amina Mohammed recognised the role of the HLPE, but said that it “needed to go out to the countries and build science at the local-level”. 

In a session charting the post-summit roadmap, the CFS chair Tiensen underlined the role the UN’s science-policy body has played since 2009 and that it was committed to continue playing this role, “given its broad credibility, legitimacy, transparency.”  

Civil society groups additionally boycotted the summit because, by reducing the CFS to an advisory role, they say the CSM was also sidelined. 

“UN, can’t you see…we demand food sovereignty,” chanted activists who had gathered outside the venue of the summit in New York. Eight Indonesian activists were arrested while protesting the summit outside Jakarta’s presidential place, but were released later in the day.

“We believe that a single, globalised food system imposed everywhere can never be healthy, sustainable, or equitable,” said Malcolm Guy – a film director and secretary general of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle – at the Global Peoples’ Summit on Food Systems. This parallel virtual summit took place on Thursday, broadcasting protests and statements from campaigners worldwide.

What was agreed at the summit?

Few new commitments – financial or otherwise – were made at the summit. This is because the summit was actually part of a much longer process, explains Prof Maywa Montenegro, of the University of California, Santa Cruz. She tells Carbon Brief:

“What I think is important to recognise is that the summit has actually been ongoing for nearly two years, ever since it was announced by the UN secretary general.  Since that time, multiple action tracks, an advisory council, a scientific group, a dialogues gateway and more have been assembled to inform and guide the summit’s outcomes. In other words, the ‘outcomes’ are not happening on 23 September but are part of a longer process.”

Several coalitions were announced or strengthened over the course of the meeting. A host of nations declared their commitment to delivering universal school meals. Many countries, including the UK, Colombia and San Marino set a goal for halving post-harvest food loss by 2030 through the “Food is Never Waste” coalition. (Waste is responsible for about one-quarter of food-related emissions.)

Other coalitions with a climate focus included those on agroecology and regenerative agriculture, sustainable livestock and deforestation. 

One of these was the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) Initiative, a partnership between the US and the United Arab Emirates that was announced in April 2021 and is set to officially launch at COP26 in November. The goal of AIM for Climate is to drive “more rapid and transformative climate action in all countries” through greater investment in research and development.

During her address, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand would be joining the AIM for Climate initiative. Ardern also called for better incorporation of Indigenous knowledge into food systems change and for an end to “environmentally harmful” subsidies for agriculture and fisheries. 

Ardern was one of the few leaders who explicitly addressed and spoke of tackling and measuring agricultural emissions, saying “we can’t solve global food security without solving emissions”. Methane from agriculture and waste form a large chunk of New Zealand’s emissions but are currently exempt from its net-zero goal.

Alberto Fernández, president of Argentina, also called for the removal of “distorting practises” during his speech. (A report released this month by three UN agencies found that nearly 90% of agricultural subsidies across 88 countries were “harmful” to the environment and human health, with much of the funding support going to high-emitting commodities such as beef and dairy.) 

On Wednesday, US president Joe Biden had made a commitment in his address to the UN General Assembly to invest $10bn in addressing food security over the next five years. Tom Vilsack, the US secretary of agriculture, reiterated this commitment on Thursday and highlighted three priorities for funding: ensuring food security and nutrition for all, mitigating and adapting to climate change and creating equitable food systems. According to Climate Action Tracker, the agriculture sector contributed to 10% of US GHG emissions in 2019, which have increased by 11.5% since 1990.

Samantha Power, the administrator for the US Agency for International Development, added that of the $10bn, half would be spent within the US and half would be spent abroad, mainly through the agency’s Feed the Future programme.

Melinda Gates pledged $922m from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over the next five years to address nutrition. This, she said, would go to “support nutritious food systems and agricultural programmes that are gender-transformational [sic], that double-down on large-scale food fortification, prioritise maternal and child nutrition and catalyse further research and innovation”. Gates said the funding was the “largest commitment we’ve made in this area”.

Yannick Glemarec, CEO of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), said the fund planned to double its existing green investments of $1bn a year. He laid out three “paradigm-shifting pathways” where investments could help strengthen food systems resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions of the sector: promoting agroecology, facilitating climate-informed advisory services and reconfiguring food systems to make them more resilient.

Nana Addo Akufo-Addo, the president of Ghana, announced a commitment to increase the production of climate-resilient varieties of legumes, fruits and other crops by 40%. He additionally committed to developing a nutrient profiling system and food-based dietary guidelines by 2023. 

The prime minister of Norway and the ministers representing France and the UK all committed to working towards removing illegal deforestation from the supply chains of products imported to their countries. According to a recent study, Norway is estimated to have the fourth highest deforestation footprint per capita, half of which comes from imports. Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, also spoke about the need for reforestation projects in his country.

Among major aquatic food producers, Iceland committed to eliminating illegal fishing. “It takes courage to simultaneously transform our value systems and food systems,” said Iceland prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to decarbonise the country’s fisheries, agriculture and forestry sectors, but set no explicit targets. He asked that states “maintain and strengthen free and fair trade” and that trade restrictions “need to be based on scientific evidence.” In December, Tokyo will play host to the Nutrition for Growth Summit aimed at “governments, business, multilaterals and donors” to encourage “data-driven financial, policy, programmatic, or impact commitments.” It is unclear how this builds upon the existing summit outcomes.

Research into “climate-smart agriculture” was a recurring theme, referred to by Sierra Leone, US, WEF and the World Bank in their statements. Several country leaders – including those of Morocco, Thailand, France, Kenya and Austria – explicitly mentioned agroecology and agroforestry in their speeches.

Many leaders discussed the particular vulnerabilities of agriculture and food systems to climate change. “Climate change has increased the risk of droughts, floods and extreme weather events, affecting agriculture disproportionally,” said Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi, who is also the current president of G20. He stressed the centrality of the UN system and Rome-based food agencies in meeting the world’s malnutrition crisis that has been compounded by climate change and Covid-19. 

The heads of state of several small island developing states (SIDS) spoke to the unique challenges facing their nations. In addition to their heightened vulnerability to the effects of climate change, they said, they are at higher risk of food insecurity due to reliance on imports. Food systems change must build “resilience at individual, community, government and global levels”, said Surangal Whipps Jr, the president of Palau. Whipps Jr also called on the rest of the world to join Palau in committing to protecting 30% of the ocean.

Several countries called for funding from the global north to transform their food systems and address climate challenges from extreme weather events. 

“Political crises and natural disasters are making progress on food difficult,” said Ariel Henry, prime minister of Haiti.

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina asked for increased funding for developing countries for achieving food system resilience and reminded countries to disburse funds committed to climate adaptation. Morocco appealed to create a fund to bring in financing necessary to ensure food security in Africa and build sustainable food systems. 

Namibian president Hage G Geingob called for resources and technology transfer to support its rights-based marine laws aimed at reducing overfishing in its rich marine waters. He spoke of the need to combat desertification and restore degraded lands. Geingob was one of the only leaders to talk about land reform in connection with food systems, promising to “prioritise land redistribution and correct the ills of the past”.

Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez spoke out against a six decade-long blockade policy “imposed to provoke hunger”. He spoke of Cuba’s efforts to reduce dependence on imports and guarantee a universal right to food:

“Industrialised nations must and can assume their historical responsibility and urgently address the harmful effects of climate change, which are also having an impact on the availability, access, quality and stability of food. To begin with, it would be enough for them to meet their commitments to financing for development and international cooperation.

“The only solution to this painful human plight is to urgently, radically and sustainably transform the irrational and unsustainable production and consumption patterns of capitalism, which are destroying the environment and biodiversity, solve the external debt problem and grant special and differentiated trade treatment to developing countries.”

As the meeting continued on Friday, ministers from more than 50 countries addressed the summit and gave their commitments to food system transformation.

Agricultural ministers from both China and India spoke of their governments’ prioritisation of food security, with Tang Renjian, China’s minister of agriculture and rural affairs, pointing out that China produces about one-fifth of the world’s food. He also spoke of the need for collaboration to enhance food production, including investments in rural development, infrastructure improvements and the promotion of a green transformation in agriculture. He called for cooperation between global south countries and for free trade in order to maintain supply chains.

Narendra Singh Tomar, India’s minister of agriculture and farmers welfare, also touched on increasing productivity and said that India was committed to sharing technological expertise with other nations. Speaking of the need to make agriculture stronger economically, he discussed the $15.8bn that has been given to farmers in India as direct income support. 

On Monday, farmers in India held a nationwide shutdown as part of continuing protests against three farm laws passed by authorities last year without appropriate consultation. The laws, farmers fear, would deregulate the sale of their crops, allow private companies to procure their produce and fail to assure them of a minimum support price. This could severely impact their livelihoods in an acute agrarian and water crisis, made worse by climate change, the farmers say.

Indonesia’s minister of national development planning, Suharso Monoarfa, also touched on the need for strengthening his country’s agricultural sector’s resilience, particularly through allocating more resources for small-scale farmers. Indonesia, he said, plans to use its G20 presidency in 2022 to push for increased collaboration and inclusive partnerships.

How has the outcome been received?

The summit and its outcomes were received very differently by NGOs, academics and civil society: some hailed the summit as the start of a new conversation on food systems, many others outrightly rejected it.

Ed Davey, international engagement director of the Food and Land Use Coalition, which was involved in the dialogues programme in the lead-up to the summit, tells Carbon Brief that “there was much to celebrate in the Food Systems Summit”. He adds:

“Special envoy Agnes Kalibata made the persuasive claim that the food systems summit would set a global framework for action on food over the next three to five years, akin to the legacy of the Paris Agreement for climate. A clear process for follow-up and accountability, led by the Rome-based agencies was established. The mission of the summit – to raise the importance of food as an issue to heads of state – was achieved.”

According to Davey, the outcomes and new partnerships that came together at the summit could “make a real difference”, but follow-up will be key.

Dr Matthew Canfield from the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society at Leiden University says that while the summit was successful in raising the dialogue on food systems, the outcomes are very contested and “​​exposed deep conflicts over knowledge and power that need to be addressed if food systems transformation is to be realised.” He tells Carbon Brief:

“From the very start, the UNFSS was compromised because of its leadership. The special envoy and chair of the scientific group were both deeply embedded in corporate and philanthropic networks. Rather than designing a summit around human rights, the process they established was rooted in a weak framework of participation that allowed anyone to participate without addressing the over-representation of the private sector.”

Canfield also criticises the summit for the lack of “clear financing or governance mechanism[s]” and that all commitments made at the summit were voluntary. He adds:

“As a result, those projects that are profitable for the private sector are the ones that are likely to be funded. The summit embraced a free-trade agenda from the very beginning. Given that liberalisation has largely benefitted large agro-exporters and has increased food import dependency, this was a major missed opportunity.”

Others specifically called out the summit for not focusing clearly enough on the links between food systems and climate. João Campari, the global food lead at WWF International – and the chair of action track 3 at the summit – said in a press statement that “the lack of attention to nature and climate” at the summit “threatens to undermine progress towards the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals”.

La Via Campesina is one of the many social movements that boycotted the summit and stayed outside of the official proceedings. ​​Paula Gioia, an international coordination committee member of the collective and a beekeeper from Germany, tells Carbon Brief that the group will not recognise the outcomes of this “summit-show” they deem illegitimate and “stand united against any attempts” to undermine participatory food systems policymaking. She explains:

“In front of us, we have a private affair led by corporations and philantro-capitalists, which fully undermines small scale food producers, who are producing 70% of world’s food. We are also alert to the attempt by summit organisers to push through their so-called-solutions into the Committee for World Food Security and other spaces, aiming to give corporations a backdoor entry into the UN system, while fully ignoring their vested and conflicting interests.” 

Guerra, of ActionAid USA, is also concerned about the CFS being “undermine[d]” by the process and outcomes of the summit. She tells Carbon Brief:

“The summit has given big agri-business a seat at the table and gives corporations preferential access to follow-up processes without considering the power imbalance within our food systems. Civil society organisations and movements of smallholder farmers, who produce the majority of the world’s food, called for one of the action areas to include ‘transformation of corporate food systems’. Their views were ignored in the process and the outcomes of the summit. 

The summit, Guerra adds, “asked the wrong questions and concluded with the wrong answers”. She says:

“Pledges to adopt more sustainable farming practices are welcome. But it is just empty rhetoric and greenwashing without addressing chemical intensive monocropping, industrial meat farming and phasing out the use of pesticides and agrochemicals.”

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  • Q&A: How did climate change feature at the UN Food Systems Summit?

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