It’s an incredible time in the food system and the broader sustainable development and climate space.  It is a time of extreme gravity, for sure.  But is also a time of inspiration, and most critically, a time for action.

We’re slowly emerging from the pandemic shutdown, and food system and climate leaders are harnessing all of the warning signals, research, seminal reports, and output from the many key conferences and Summits of the past few years to set the world on a corrective pathway.

And we’re doing this all under the frame of the Decade of Action, with a focus on leading a food systems transformation to accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, coupled with a focus on reducing emissions to rein in the disastrous and increasingly visible effects of climate change.

For several months the world has been knocked off track by the pandemic – itself the ultimate signal of our need to rebuild sustainable, regenerative, and equitable food system – and one which limits, and properly accounts for, social and environmental externalities.   

And as we move from the Food Systems Summit to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, arguably the most important global conference of our time, it feels like an oversimplification to say that the world cannot miss this existential opportunity to harness the many signals of food systems dysfunction and climate change.

But we really can’t say it enough.  Food systems link all of us, and climate change spares no region.  The nations of the world must collaborate, with urgency, to move from verbal commitment to transformational action.  There is no further time to delay, and there is no room for non-participation.

And while the challenge of food system and climate transformation seems daunting, it’s hard to imagine a better opportunity to bring an increasingly polarized world together for the betterment of humanity. 

It is starting to feel as if we are on the precipice of some meaningful traction for action.  And at this inflection point, I think it’s worthwhile for all of us to seek new inspirational frames to add fuel to the transformation process. 

From Inspiration to Action

I want to return to a specific point from July’s UN Food Systems Pre-Summit from Dr. Agnes Kalibata, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General to the Food Systems Summit.  In her inspirational opening remarks, Kalibata reflected on all of the work of the past two years leading up to the Pre-Summit – noting that during the process she learned that the food system is much more powerful than she had thought to drive positive societal change.

She reiterated the idea that the “silver lining” in the pandemic is the recognition of the colossal opportunity that we have to leverage the food system to positively transform our world. 

Further, she emphasized that we must add the element of urgency to the Pre-Summit (and subsequent Food Systems Summit) conversations – and that we all must look at the next nine years as “the most critical years of our lifetimes” to enact the necessary change to end hunger, reverse climate change, and improve the livelihoods of citizens around the globe.

Notably, she stated that “it can’t be any other way” – the next nine years must really be about “coming through” in terms of transforming our food system to accelerate progress toward meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

In other words – it’s essential that we move from words and verbal commitments to aggressive, tangible, measurable action. 

On all of these counts she’s absolutely correct, and we can apply all of her thinking to the broader (and linked) emissions-related issues underlying the COP26 sessions – which are a natural follow to the Pre-Summit and Food Systems Summit sessions of July and September.

A New Action Frame

As I see continual alarming signals of our dysfunctional food system and the related effects of climate change on people and planet, I find myself increasingly looking for elements and frames of inspiration to promote to accelerate the needed transformation process.  I often find myself thinking: 

How can you not be inspired by the imperative to transform the food system and rein in climate change?

How can you not be driven to contribute to a global food system transformation that improves the lives of billions while securing the future of the planet for the next generation?

And I was struck by one other highly significant reflection by Special Envoy Kalibata, who noted that the question she heard most frequently from stakeholders throughout the months of preparatory work for the Pre-Summit work was this:  “How can I help?”

And as we all reflect on the many signals we are receiving of an unsustainable food system and a rapidly warming planet, and we simultaneously watch for how policymakers and nations will unite (or not) to change our food system and directly address climate change, I find that it’s worth stepping back to reflect on that very simple, and yet immensely powerful question:

How can I help?

It’s a powerful frame for each of us to adopt, because everyone has a role to play in transforming our food system and reining in the effects of climate change – and an urgent need to play it. 

It’s not enough for us to rely on policymakers, we must be engaged change agents ourselves.

I have long believed that for individuals seeking to advance change for sustainability, everything starts with recognizing signals, reflecting on them, questioning the drivers, and engaging to drive behavior change in our circles in myriad ways:  reducing waste, changing our diet, properly valuing food, reducing plastics usage, reducing our carbon footprint, questioning (and raising expectations of) vendors, advancing sustainability initiatives in our workplaces, volunteering, teaching, getting active and supporting legislation for positive social and environmental change, supporting responsible business organizations (such as Upcyclers and B Corporations), and generally becoming influencers of sustainable change.

Because as individuals we must overcome the daunting nature of the SDG challenges and become active participants in creating the change we wish to see. 

It’s worth noting that B Corporation principles can be applied to individuals as well, augmenting the “how can I help” frame. 

B Corporations focus on “accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy” based on recognition that the world’s most challenging problems cannot be solved by government and nonprofits alone.  They are driven by the following core set of principles:

  • We must be the change we seek in the world
  • All business must be conducted as if people and place mattered
  • Through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all
  • To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon one another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.

As consumers, indeed as individuals, we can embrace the same concepts in our everyday activities to accelerate change to improve the food system and stem climate change.

Summit Points of Inspiration

As with the Pre-Summit in July, I found that September’s Food Systems Summit provided many points of inspiration for the change that we need to lead to rebuild our food systems and restore climate and Nature.  Some examples include:

Agnes Kalibata noted that food systems have “unbelievable ways of uniting us” and that they contain the solutions to the problems that the world faces today, while being a pathway to advancing progress toward the SDGs.

Joachim Von Braun, chair of the Food Systems Summit Scientific Committee, pointed to rising global hunger figures and added that the fact that 3 billion citizens lack access to a healthy diet is a violation of human rights.

He also noted that while the global food system accounts for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it can (and must) become climate-neutral, and emphasized that good food is undervalued, and the cost of unhealthy, unsustainably-produced food must be accounted for.

David Nabarro, Senior Adviser for the Food Systems Summit Dialogue, succinctly noted that food connects people to one another and to the planet, and that “If food systems can be got right, then the Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved, If not, they will be missed.”

The President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, reminded us that our current food systems are not delivering on safety, equity, sustainability, and health, and thus have to be transformed.”

Michael Higgins, President of Ireland, emphasized that “transforming our food systems is central to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030,” adding that “whether or not we transform these systems is a test of our authenticity.”  Higgins called for a new moral consciousness to ensure that the needs of all global citizens can be met in sustainable fashion.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted that we are “waging a war against Nature and reaping the bitter harvest – ruined crops, dwindling incomes, and failing food systems.”  He reminded everyone that “food is life” and called on us to “build a world where healthy and nutritious food is available and affordable for everyone, everywhere.”

The President of Finland, Sauli Niinisto, stressed that it is our human responsibility to address the drivers behind global hunger, and that we must find the will and the resources to do so.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, effectively summarized the importance of the Food Systems Summit, noting that “The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in global food systems that will only be worsened with climate change,” adding “It is therefore essential that all stakeholders work together to transform global food systems to be more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive.”

The former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, noted that the biggest opportunity we have is leaders who recognize that a business as usual approach will not deliver the needed change to our food systems.  In other words, we must think and act in transformational terms. 

Achim Steiner, Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), noted that the Food Systems Summit highlights the moment when our global food systems must undergo a hard reboot.  Steiner added that the world’s food systems are on an unsustainable trajectory with roughly 90% of global agricultural subsidies actually doing immense harm – damaging health and exacerbating the climate crisis.  He pointed to the importance of country-level work taking place as part of the Summit, and noted that “together we can press the reset button.”  

Speaking on the need to address rising global hunger, David Beasley of the World Food Programme noted that it’s much cheaper to address root cause solutions, and in his call to action noted that “children can’t eat empty promises.”

FAO Director Qu Dongyu effectively distilled the intent of the Food Systems Summit with the following statement:  “Let us work together to achieve a more efficient, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable agri-food system for better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life for all, leaving no one behind.”

Tom De Bruijn, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation for the Netherlands warned that “We have reached the limits of what our planet can take.”  He added that our food system is in crisis, with fundamental implications not just for zero hunger but for all of the SDGs, and that we know the causes and must now move to solutions.

Lord Goldsmith, the UK’s Minister for Pacific and the Environment, noted that “the way we produce and consume food is fundamentally unsustainable” and cited the importance for nations to work together to prevent ecological collapse and famine.  Significantly, he stated that the world has all the tools it needs to transform the food system – all that is missing is the political will.   

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the UN, noted that “We cannot let this go, there is no going back…realizing the SDGs by 2030 will require a breakthrough in food systems.” She added, “To achieve that breakthrough, we must recognize that humanity’s very future depends on solidarity, trust, and our ability to work together as a global family to achieve common goals.”

Actions Determine our Legacy

As I synthesized these and other inspiring points from many Summit contributors, my main takeaway was this:  we can do better, and we must do better, quickly, with participation across all nations, all sectors, and all levels of society. 

I often think back to Jonathan Foley’s statement in his excellent TED talk, The Other Inconvenient Truth, where he points to an image of abandoned fishing boats on a desert landscape that was once the Aral Sea, noting “I don’t know about you, but I’m terrified that future archeologists will dig this up and write stories about our time in history, and wonder, ‘What were you thinking?’”

I feel the same way.  I’m terrified that people will look at this generation and say:  You had all the signals and evidence you needed, but you failed to come together and act.  How could you not?

And I reflect on Marco Lambertini’s statement in WWF’s 2018 Living Planet report on choice and action: 

“We can be the founders of a global movement that changed our relationship with the planet, that saw us secure a future for all life on Earth…Or we can be the generation that had its chance and failed to act; that let Earth slip away.  The choice is ours.  Together we can make it happen for nature and for people.”

We have no shortage of urgent signals of the need for transformative change – rising global hunger numbers, extreme storms and floods, extreme drought and fires, melting sea ice, continued deforestation and biodiversity loss, and climate-induced famine in Madagascar, to name a few. 

At the same time, we have no shortage of points of inspiration – I found many in the Food System Pre-Summit from July, as well as the Food System Summit in September.

I found it immensely gratifying that so many countries stepped forward at the Food Systems Summit to express their commitment to transforming their food systems, and to discuss how they would do it while noting their unique challenges and priorities.

There’s something comforting about a stream of nations, some of them small and developing with limited resources, others (such as island nations) on the front lines of climate change, declaring their support for the goals of the Summit, noting the value of their preparation, and outlining their plans on what they will do to contribute in their own countries.

One can’t help but feel a bit of relief hearing that so many countries understand their connectedness with one another and the planet – from such understanding collaborative action can grow. 

How can I help?

It’s time for all of us to build on our personal signals and sources of inspiration to help the world move full speed ahead from commitment to transformative action on the needed food systems and climate change efforts to accelerate progress toward the SDGs.    

In doing so, we might all reflect on that simple but powerful framing from Agnes Kalibata, how can I help?

The next nine years are the most critical of our lifetimes for the sake of the planet and both current and future generations.  As Christine Campeau, of CARE stated, “we urge…each and every one of you to make ambitious and transformative commitments today.  What we do or don’t do in this next five to ten years will define the next thousand.” 

Further pointing to the importance of engagement by all individuals, she noted that “Food is the future, and our future is at stake, and we need all of you to help author what the future of food will look like.”

Going back to Agnes Kalibata from the FS Summit:  “Our food system has incredible power to end hunger, to build healthier lives, and to sustain our beautiful planet.” 

Let’s harness that power. 

And as we look to nations, businesses, and policymakers to take the needed action, from the Food Systems Summit to COP26 and beyond, let’s also ask ourselves the key question: 

How can I help?