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How did the UN Food Systems Summit Stocktaking Moment measure up against the big numbers on people and planet?

2 August 2023
Anna Locke

Against the backdrop of searing heat and record temperatures in Rome, more than 2,000 representatives of governments, farmers and civil society from over 160 countries congregated for the UN Food Systems Summit stocktaking moment (UNFSS+2). The Summit aimed to get urgent action at scale on food systems for “better and more viable outcomes for people, the planet and prosperity”.

Big numbers on some familiar spectres framed the discussion: 780 million people are still going hungry; three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet; two billion are obese or overweight; and 462 million are underweight. At the same time, more than one-third of food produced is lost or goes wasted. Food systems are responsible for over 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, up to 70% of water use and 80% of terrestrial biodiversity loss.

Like many, we turned up eager to hear about progress made on reducing those numbers. So, what did we take away from our attendance in Rome?

Signs of progress

 There were some encouraging signs: since 2021, 126 countries have adopted a national pathway and over 100 have submitted voluntary reports on progress against the five action tracks adopted in 2021: ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all; shifting to sustainable consumption patterns; boosting nature positive production; advancing equitable livelihoods; and building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress.

The main session on stocktaking showcased government action on policies and practices along the food chain; the way that food systems are now featuring in national development plans and strategies; and new processes on government coordination, inclusive participation and financing of food systems transformation. It was also heartening to see a larger number of countries and farmers participating than the first summit in 2021, an important step in moving the UNFSS+2 towards a more inclusive platform following criticism from civil society. And in bi-lateral meetings, farmers expressed their determination to be more vocal and propositional about how they want governments to spend public money on agriculture.

Finally, the strong presence and proactivity of the UAE COP28 Presidency at UNFSS+2 indicated their commitment to giving food systems an unprecedented profile and platform in climate talks.

Causes for concern

 However, there are concerns about the “implementation gap” in translating what is on paper into practice. Certainly, it can feel that progress currently looks less like transformation on the ground and more like an enhanced consciousness of the importance and language of a food systems approach, the coalescing of a tighter community around food systems transformation and a blooming of initiatives and coalitions to identify pathways towards more sustainable food systems.

Even what is on paper could be improved. National pathways currently range from very narrow strategies, focusing on low hanging fruit, to more ambitious and holistic visions, policies and programmes. There is a worry that many government actions could represent a reframing of existing measures and intentions rather than additional steps that have the power to move agri-food production and consumption – and everything in between – quickly towards a system that hacks, rather than chips, away at the big numbers we need to see falling rapidly.

Moreover, the UNFSS lacks a comprehensive framework to quantify progress and link results to higher-level indicators to inform transformation, holding governments to account in the process.

Moving forward to a more accountable system

 Some important initiatives are stepping in to fill that gap, which can help to define what “good” looks like, particularly for different countries. One that was featured at the UNFSS+2 is the Food Systems Countdown Initiative, which assesses progress in five thematic areas: diets, nutrition and health; environment, production and natural resources; livelihoods, poverty and equity; governance; and resilience. This uses data that is already available with sufficient country coverage to put together a comprehensive dataset and draws principally on the SDGs as commitments that countries have already signed up to (although there is not a perfect fit between relevant SDGs and food systems).

Presentation of initial results at the UNFSS+2 highlighted two main points: first, no country, region or income group is performing uniformly well across all indicators. This implies that all countries need to boost performance and can learn from each other’s experiences in the areas in which others are excelling. Second, many of the indicators are not related to income levels, reinforcing the view that food systems transformation needs to have specific, tailored action at national level.

What next for the UNFSS?

 Overall, there is much to celebrate from the UNFSS+2. Yet progress cannot be taken for granted and the costs of inaction are mounting. We urge countries to use their National Pathways to forge a truly ambitious vision and programme of action to transform their food systems and bring the big numbers in line with the ambition that they signed up to through the SDGs.

Through changing how they spend public money on food and agriculture to promote more sustainable agricultural and dietary practices, national governments have the opportunity to reduce GHG emissions, restore soil health and biodiversity, and boost nutrition and livelihoods. The UAE’s decision to prioritise transforming agri-food systems at COP28 provides an opportunity for action and attracting and redirecting resources that must not be squandered.

“Without affordability and availability of healthy food, the world’s population is less productive, more prone to disease and chances of conflict over resources needed for food production are significantly enhanced.” – Afshan Khan, SUN Coordinator

“Actions that place people over planet or planet over people are only temporary fixes.” – Afioga Fiame Naomi Mataafa, Prime Minister of Samoa