As we near the September date for the much-awaited UN Food Systems Summit, July saw the Pre-Summit in Rome – a three-day “People’s Summit” designed to bring together stakeholders from all sectors of the food system with a focus on food systems transformation – which included reviewing the latest scientific approaches to food system transformation, harnessing ideas from months of ongoing global dialogues around five action tracks, creating coalitions of action, mobilizing financing and partnerships, and laying the foundation for the pivotal, solutions-focused September Summit. 

Hundreds of delegates participated in dozens of sessions over three days, while 17,000 individuals from around the world joined virtually.  I was energized by the deep commitment of the participants, and the clear recognition of the need to build more inclusive, equitable, regenerative, and sustainable food systems. 

I encourage everyone to go back and review some of the sessions, as well as some of the key highlights from numerous food system leaders – as the UN FAO team has done an excellent job in making the Pre-Summit content available in video form.

What came through clearly was the urgent need for food systems transformation, which is consistent with the Summit’s stated goal of leveraging the power of food systems to drive progress on all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).   

As UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed noted in the opening session, we are currently failing to deliver on a fundamental right for people (the right to food) while we are simultaneously failing our planet.  She added that food is the “basic building block of life” for global citizens – it is central to human health and well-being, harmony with Nature, and reduction of inequalities – and it can help us accelerate actions and solutions to achieve the SDGs. 

There are scores of critical issues to be addressed at September’s Food Systems Summit under the frame of food systems transformation, including reducing hunger, improving nutrition, increasing equity, reducing food loss and waste, reducing emissions, and stemming deforestation and biodiversity loss – all issues that underpin the SDGs. 

And to get there, to achieve the necessary food system transformation, I’m increasingly convinced that everything begins with caring – a deep level of caring for our fellow citizens and for our planet – followed by will.  And I believe that beyond all of the discussions on science, policymaking, financing, and partnerships, we need to be talking more about the human element to inspire one another and create change leaders. 

Ultimately, we need to find the collective will among businesses, governments, and individuals to truly change our food system at this current inflection point.  We simply cannot continue with business as usual, either because we think we have more time, or because we are content to leave these critical environmental and social challenges to the next generation.  Because food is climate, and we have no Planet B to fall back on. 

So we need to care deeply about our fellow citizens and about our planet, and we need to find the global will to act responsibly, in accordance with that will, to lead the needed change. 

And at the Pre-Summit, among the many inspirational speakers, I want to put the spotlight on three – David Beasley, Paul Polman, and Jeffrey Sachs – who got at those themes of caring and will while providing several action-focused points of light for transforming our food systems. 

Calls for Action

David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, provided an inspirational talk at the start of the Pre-Summit with a highly effective framing – noting that “the world’s in trouble, so I’m going to give a wake-up call.” 

And he’s spot on, because the world is in need of a serious wake-up call regarding the urgency of the global hunger challenge and the related need for food system transformation. 

Beasley poignantly reminded us that while great progress has been made over the last 200 years in building systems and institutions and in the sharing of wealth to bring millions out of extreme poverty, that progress is meaningless to the 10% of humanity that we have not yet reached.   

Referencing content from the recent State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World (SOFI 2021) report (covered in depth in last month’s post), Beasley pointed to the hugely troubling fact that global hunger figures have been going in the wrong direction in the last four to five years.  Getting specific, he also noted the increases in both chronic and acute hunger, stating that roughly 275 million people are “marching toward starvation” and “41 million are knocking on famine’s door” at the opening of the Pre-Summit. 

Beasley put investment costs in perspective as well, noting that while an investment of $40 billion annually to end global hunger might seem like a lot, the increase in the net worth of billionaires in the United States alone last year was over $1 trillion.  Going further, he challenged us to reflect on the vast gap between those at opposite ends of the wealth spectrum, noting that while there is over $400 trillion in wealth on planet Earth today, it is a “shame on planet Earth that we have a single child going to bed hungry much less dying at a rate of five seconds at a time.”

He’s absolutely right – we can, and must, do better to provide for the millions of global citizens lacking adequate food and nutrition – that alone would justify the work of the Pre-Summit and the upcoming Food Systems Summit.  Further, he framed the Pre-Summit as a call to action, reminding us that we have the expertise to end hunger.  And he’s right, we do.

Putting those two themes together, the urgent global need coupled with the fact that we have the knowledge and capability to implement solutions, we’re left to consider what is holding us back from appropriate action – bringing us back to the core idea that everything starts with caring and will.

Beasley also pointed to the challenges that climate change is bringing to less developed countries, such as Madagascar, where more than one million citizens are facing famine due to prolonged drought conditions.  In a powerful appeal, he claimed that “through no fault of their own, people in the South are struggling to survive” due to climate change.  And although they didn’t cause it, he noted that “we in the industrialized nations are not doing anything to help them, to rescue them…shame on planet Earth.” 

He also cited our misplaced areas of interest, challenging the media to show proper perspective and shift focus from covering celebrity minutiae to telling the world about the number of children starving daily.  In other words, let’s share meaningful stories about our fellow global citizens in need.

Beasley criticized the industrialized world for failing to pay sufficient attention to global hunger, while pointing out that developed countries responded aggressively to Covid because of the impact on those with wealth and power.  And he warned that hunger is coming to all of us, along with destabilization of nations and mass migrations, if we don’t change our ways (i.e., if we don’t transform the global food system). 

Last, Beasley reiterated that the world has the needed solutions, we just need to work together to implement them.  And he implored the private sector not to neglect the smallholder farmers in the developing world, but to be part of the solution by investing in them while accepting a slightly lower return on investment to empower them to drive change to food systems.   

It’s not a big ask.  It simply calls for responsible business behavior.  And it’s based on caring.

In sum, Beasley challenged us to care, and to act, to get back on track on our goals of ending global hunger and improving nutrition – and the Pre-Summit and upcoming Summit in New York provide the needed launch pad. 

A Question of Will

Similarly, Paul Polman, founder of Imagine and former CEO of Unilever, challenged Pre-Summit participants to act to transform the food system to ensure human health and planetary health.

Polman began by stating that a newcomer from outer space would think we are “nuts” in the way that we put our very existence at risk through our handling of our food systems.  He emphasized that our food system is “failing us miserably” and requires very strong systems change, and like David Beasley, he stressed that we know what needs to be done and we have the needed technology to act.

Polman cited many of the deficiencies of our current global food system – including the prioritization of volume over nutrition (and associated degradation of human health), lack of equitable wages, high greenhouse gas emissions, excessive water usage, land conversion and biodiversity loss.  He called out the hidden costs of our food (the externalities borne by society), and reminded us that it is impossible to achieve the Paris Agreement goal or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without drastically changing the food system. 

That direct connection between food and climate, and the linkage between food and the SDGs, is a critical message to convey – because fixing the health of people and planet requires fixing the food system.

He pointed to the potential for enormous ecological, social, and financial returns through the transformation of the food system, noting that a relatively small investment of $300 to $400 billion could be turned into a $4-$5 trillion positive economic force that would reduce damages to human and planetary health.    

Significantly, given the essential need for change and the high associated return on investment, Polman questioned what is missing – asking why isn’t investment in the necessary food system change happening faster? 

Answering his own question, he speculated that the missing element is human willpower, and wondered “Do we really care?”

Polman called for bold targets on health and nutrition at the upcoming Food System Summit.  He also noted that we have “well overshot” planetary boundaries, and that going forward we must go beyond circular packages to regenerative Agricultural practices that restore Nature.  He also called for the countries of the world to submit food system pathways detailing their efforts to transform food systems – plans that could be reviewed every few years to review progress, share knowledge, fuel ambition and actions, and spur targets to which they would be accountable. 

In closing, Polman advised that the world is facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and that “the race is on” for us to create Nature-positive, net zero, resilient and equitable food systems.  Expressing the gravity of the situation, Polman noted that “if we miss the opportunity, we miss mankind.”

And he’s right – fixing the food system is not optional, it’s essential for human and planetary health.

Different system, Real investment

Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia professor and UN advisor) also extolled the imperative of food system change.  Sachs stressed that we have a failed global food system driven by large multinationals and private profits, characterized by:

  • very low measures of international transfers to help the poor
  • extreme irresponsibility of developed countries regarding the environment, and
  • a radical denial of rights of poor people

He argued that we need a different system – one that is based on principles of human dignity, sovereignty, and economic rights as specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). 

Regarding food system change, Sachs noted that we’re in a world that’s “really tough,” and as an example, he chastised the U.S. government for not caring enough about the world’s poor as well as its own poor (noting that one in seven Americans is hungry).

He called for the addition of the African Union to the G20 (thus providing representation for an additional 1.4 billion citizens) while also stating that we are in need of an “order of magnitude change of development finance” to massively increase the lending and borrowing capacity of developing countries at near-zero rates.  As an example, he stated that the rich countries recently borrowed $17 trillion to battle the pandemic while the poor countries were unable to borrow at all – noting that the world exposed in this manner is “grotesque.”

Sachs also called for a commitment to “real” numbers to close financing gaps for development initiatives rather than fractional amounts which check off boxes but are insufficient to achieve essential results.  He also supported the idea of national food pathways, and noted that they too, would need appropriate financing. 

He also called for a strong United Nations, noting that the UN must be “the core and central institution of this world, period” with a realistic budget to fully back its work.  Last, he chastised the rich for “hoarding everything,” and called for appropriate taxation to ensure a civilized world.

Moving From Pre-Summit to Summit

Beasley, Polman, and Sachs all provided inspirational comments on the essential need to transform our food system to ensure the health of people and planet, as did many other speakers at the Pre-Summit.

The many failures of the global food system (extensive hunger, poor nutrition, entrenched inequity, environmental and climate harm) all point to the need for a massive wake-up call – a call to action – as David Beasley noted. 

There’s no doubt that we are at a pivotal point.  As FAO Director General Qu Dongyu candidly noted in his opening remarks, global hunger is on the rise, and the world is not on track to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals – so this is a critical moment for the conversion and transformation of the world’s agri-food systems.  And we have little time (just nine growing seasons) to achieve the needed changes to our food systems.

And in my mind, everything starts with a deep sense of caring for global citizens and the will to act.

I go back to Jeffrey Sachs’ use of the term “grotesque” when describing a world where rich countries borrowed trillions to battle the pandemic while poor countries were unable to borrow at all.  Such a division only reinforces the conditions that hinder global security, but when we reflect on the human element, there’s a deeper element of insufficient caring for those beyond our immediate sight lines. 

Last fall, in a Good After Covid-19 session exploring food system inequalities, my colleague Sara Roversi of the Future Food Institute commented that she felt SDG 17 (Partnerships) was the most important of the Sustainable Development Goals, because it really pushes all of us to work together to facilitate not only conversation but also “mutual and cooperative actions” to fix the food system. 

It’s a compelling thought, because I think any meaningful global partnerships for sustainable development – particularly related to such essential issues as hunger and nutrition – must emanate from a foundation of deep caring, supported by will and authentic commitment.

So as we build on the momentum from the Pre-Summit and gear up for the UN Food Systems Summit (as well as COP26 and the Nutrition Summit), I encourage everyone to view the commentary from David Beasley, Paul Polman, and Jeffrey Sachs, along with other content from the Pre-Summit, and consider how you can facilitate conversation and contribute to effective actions to transform our food system.

How can you promote the needed sense of caring and will? 

Because we have a long list of critical social and environmental issues to solve if we are to sustainably feed ten billion citizens by 2050 and ensure the long-term health of people and planet (and remember that’s not an optional challenge) – and to succeed we must transform our food system. 

And as Paul Polman warns, if we miss this opportunity, we miss mankind.