Why the UN Food Systems Summit is Already a Success
Transformation – denoting a complete change to make things better – is the ambition of the UN Food Systems Summit scheduled for New York in September.
The Summit aims to awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. It is a summit for everyone everywhere – a people’s summit. It is also a solutions summit that will require everyone to take action to transform the world’s food systems.
It was convened by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres with the words, “It is time to change how we produce and consume, including to reduce greenhouse emissions. Transforming food systems is crucial for delivering all the Sustainable Development Goals.”
What excites me about the Summit is that word, transforming food systems. What has been missing from previous narratives by policymakers about food is that tweaking the system isn’t nearly enough. That big change is needed. And the first step to big change is recognition. Recognition that there is a problem of a scale that needs game-changing solutions. That the only thing that will save the day is transformation.
The Summit itself is recognition that without transformational change in the global food sector, then the world will fall perilously short of sustainability targets set by world leaders for 2030. By Compassion In World Farming’s own analysis, without a move away from industrial animal agriculture – factory farming – several crucial Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be rendered unreachable.
The fact the Summit has been called at all is big news. For many years, sustainability, health, the environment and animal welfare issues have worked against a backdrop that food matters have generally been low on the political agenda.
For decades, there has been a marked complacency about food and the way we produce it. Governments have seen cheap food at any cost as a meal ticket to popularity.
Policymakers at national and international level have long failed to recognise the pivotal role of food to addressing so many of the major challenges facing our society: climate change, the collapse of nature, sustainability (or the lack of it). Food, particularly resource-intensive meat and other animal-sourced foods have barely registered in climate talks. Biodiversity conferences have largely ignored the elephant in the room – that the industrialisation of food has driven the collapse of nature.
Health considerations too have largely been disconnected from food, at least until recently. The Covid pandemic has highlighted the interconnectedness of issues, including how keeping animals in industrial breeding grounds for disease could be brewing up the next pandemic. The EU’s ruling Council in Brussels, for example, recently described industrial agriculture as increasing the “risk of future pandemics” and went on to say that it “needs to be tackled” alongside other major issues including climate change and deforestation.
And then there is hunger, the UN Secretary General’s starting point when convening the conference. Guterres pointed out that, “Today, more than 820 million people do not have enough to eat. It is unacceptable that hunger is on the rise at a time when the world wastes more than 1 billion tonnes of food every year”. And he’s right. The world produces enough food for twice the number of people alive today. Yet, four billion people’s worth of food is feeding factory farmed animals who then waste the vast majority of calories and protein in conversion to meat, milk and eggs.
On top of this, industrialised animal agriculture outcompetes small-scale farmers, especially women and indigenous peoples in the developing Global South, robbing them of the ability to produce their own food, often leaving them too poor to buy the industrialised products, causing serious food security issues.
Transforming food systems requires challenging the status quo, which means it won’t be easy; I’ve seen some of that rocky road for myself.
In June, I was appointed a co-lead to the Sustainable Livestock Solutions Cluster, a working group set up in preparation for the Summit to curate game-changing ideas relating to animal production.
The first thing I noticed was that the working group was heavily weighted toward industry interests. The primary solution being put forward was that the world needs substantially more livestock production, tweaked by technical innovations, led by farmer-driven roadmaps.
It seemed like more of the same, with lip-service to sustainability. Alternative voices in the working group had been largely ignored. I’d come up against this scenario before in UN discussions. In Nairobi in 2019, my keynote speech calling for shifts away from factory farming and high-meat diets, a theme supported by other speakers, was airbrushed out of conference conclusions.
Centre of Gravity
The Livestock cluster had been identified by Summit leadership as a ‘centre of gravity’ cluster with wide significance to the overall Summit, not surprisingly as it is difficult to overstate the planetary impact of the livestock sector.
Almost half the habitable land surface of the planet is used for agriculture, four-fifths of it is devoted to livestock production. Despite the vast commitment of land, livestock products provide only 37 per cent of humanity’s protein and but a fifth of our calories. Hardly efficient and with little room for growth. It is also a useful indicator of how the natural and manmade worlds are now out of balance. Taken together, the weight of humans and the animals we rear for food account for 96 per cent of all mammals on Earth. Everything else, from elephants to badgers and mice make up just 4 per cent. In the avian world, domestic poultry account for 70 per cent of birds by mass. As David Attenborough puts it, “This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world”.
In a world producing 80 billion land animals for food a year, most of them factory farmed, resetting the balance will require switching to welfare-positive, nature-friendly production with fewer animals.
Turning Things Around
My time with the Sustainable Livestock Solutions Cluster reminded me just how difficult meaningful change can be to achieve. Especially when there are competing voices and vested interests. It can feel overwhelming. Marshalling a wider range of solutions ideas meant encouraging progressive voices to become engaged in the process.
It wasn’t easy; canvassing ideas from busy people and making sure that alternative voices were heard in ways that were faithful to the principles of a people’s summit: where all voices bear equal weight and are heard with equal interest.
The outcome was that moving away from industrial animal agriculture, reducing the size of the livestock industry and seeing animal welfare as an essential component of healthy and regenerative food production, were eventually accepted as part of the Summit’s official repository of ideas (see Paper C). I urge governments to highlight these particular ideas in ministerial statements at the Summit itself.
Despite being billed as a ‘people’s summit’, some important civil society interests have chosen to boycott it. Others have pulled out along the way, frustrated by the difficulties involved in creating change. Fears have been raised about the lack of process and accountability in decision-making, and that rules of engagement seem to have been determined by a small number of actors weighted in favour of industry. The central concern has been that the Summit risks being captured by a narrow set of industry interests to the detriment of social movements, indigenous peoples and civil society organisations. Whilst empathising with concerns, I find disengagement regrettable, counterproductive even. When civil society steps out of the process, it creates a vacuum filled by those seeking to preserve the status quo.
Better in my view to be involved in shaping the Summit and celebrating the fact that food is being elevated as a cross-cutting issue of importance.
To my mind, in creating the Summit the UN Secretary-General has done something extraordinary. Guterres has used his office to raise the issue of food on the political agenda. He has joined the dots about how it has a major bearing on whether we can overcome mounting crises of climate, nature collapse, health and hunger. He has pointed to the urgency. That without fundamental reform of the food system, the world’s governments will fail to deliver on their own sustainable development goals. And that by missing those fundamental targets for global sustainability by 2030, we will have failed our children.
HRH Prince of Wales, someone who has long raised the alarm on the impact of failed food systems on our health and the planet, captured the mood at the July pre-summit: “It gives me hope that the pressure for change is now being met by a substantial, determined global response,” he said.
The pre-summit in Rome hosted by the Government of Italy saw more than 100 countries represented and 20,000 delegates attending, including food producers, civil society, indigenous peoples and young people.
The momentum behind the UN Food Systems Summit in raising food up the agenda is why I am proud to be part of a UN network of Summit ‘Champions’; I see the event as a crucial and timely stepping-stone for change and encourage everyone to be engaged.
So, what can we expect from the Summit?
Well, its stated ambition is to launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies on “healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems”. It should be borne in mind that the Summit itself is not a decision-making process. Instead, it is a gathering of game-changing solutions. A festival of ideas for saving the planet. What happens next is up to us.
Where the outcomes will go will be decided by the various agencies and member states involved. They can be influenced by us. We also need to play our role in making sure that vital elements of the Summit are hand-carried into other forums, for example, insisting that food is addressed at COP26 climate talks in Glasgow later this year. After all, the livestock sector is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions of all the world’s planes, trains and cars put together.
Using our influence to shape positive outcomes from the Summit is why organisations like Compassion in World Farming, 50by40, Brighter Green, FAIRR, WWF and many others continue to be involved, as well as encouraging governments, companies and financial institutions to get behind genuinely game-changing solutions.
Like others in the animal welfare community, I am clear about what is the most important game-changing solution: ending factory farming and the over-reliance on animal-sourced foods.
Achieving it will require a massive shift in policy thinking.
But big change starts with recognition of the problem and the need for action; and the UN Secretary-General’s Summit provides just that starting point: recognition. That is why I consider the Summit already to be a success. It has elevated like nothing before, the issue of food on the global policy stage. The opportunity before us is to use its momentum to make change happen. The wellbeing of animals farmed and wild, together with future generations of people, depends on it.
Global CEO of Compassion in World Farming
Philip Lymbery is Global CEO of the leading international farm animal welfare organisation, Compassion in World Farming, Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester, President of Eurogroup for Animals, Brussels and founding Board Member of the World Federation for Animals.
Philip has also been appointed as a United Nations Food Systems Champion for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.