Welcome to 2021! Hopefully, we will see the end of a terrible health crisis that has claimed so many lives around the world. The Executive Director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, has predicted that hunger will take more lives than the COVID-19 pandemic. This will put an even brighter spotlight on the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, announced on World Food Day, October 16, 2019 that he would host a Food Systems Summit in 2021 with the aim of maximizing the co-benefits of a food systems approach consistent with UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. He then announced two months later on December 16, 2019 the appointment of Dr. Agnes Kalibata of Rwanda as his Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit.UN Logo

Dr. Kalibata had been the Minister of Agriculture in Rwanda and is currently the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA, headquartered in Kenya, is committed to growing Africa out of poverty by focusing on some dozen or more priority countries. Kalibata has a PhD in Agriculture from the University of Massachusetts. She was the 2019 recipient of the National Academy of Sciences prestigious Public Welfare Medal for her work to drive Africa’s agricultural transformation through modern sciences and effective policy, thereby improving livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

Having grown up in a refugee camp on a small farm bought for her family by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, Kalibata understands the struggles of a significant proportion of the world’s poor. Kalibata’s work as a minister gave her a chance to participate in the shaping of SDGs and now she is charged with helping the world step up its action towards coming through on SDGS in the next ten years.

What is the Food Systems Summit as defined by the United Nations?

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The Summit will launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems. The second of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” The Secretary General was concerned that we were not on track to meet that objective, among the other SDGs, and in fact the numbers are moving further away from that goal over the last five years.

The Secretary General also recognizes that the way we produce food, and how and what we do between the farm and fork contributes to emissions, waste and is not sustainable. But he also recognized that the solutions to these challenges can be found in what we can do differently in our food system; hence the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

The Summit will attempt 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- each of us has something to say and each of us can do something that can make a difference.

It is also a solutions summit that will require everyone, and all countries, to take action to transform the world’s food systems. There are times when making incremental steps towards a shared vision seems enough, but we are running out of time to correct course on our food systems. So yes, this must be a solutions summit and they must be outrageously ambitious in their actions.

The point people in the US Government for the Summit have been Under Secretary Ted McKinney and Ambassador Kip Tom, staffed by the Foreign Agriculture Service at USDA and USAID. Presumably, the people who are confirmed for those positions in the Biden Administration will continue to be our leaders for the UN Summit.

Guided by five “Action Tracks”, the Summit will bring together key players from the worlds of science, business, policy, healthcare, and academia, as well as farmers, indigenous people, youth organizations, consumer groups, environmental activists, and other key stakeholders. Before, during and after the Summit, these actors will come together to bring about tangible, positive changes to the world’s food systems.

What does the Summit aim to achieve?

The Summit process aims to deliver the following outcomes:

  1. Generate significant action and measurable progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the face of COVID-19. The Summit will attempt to identify solutions and leaders and issue a call for action at all levels of the food system, including national and local governments, companies, and citizens.
  2. Raise awareness and elevate public discussion about how reforming our food systems can help us all to achieve the SDGs by implementing reforms that are good for people and planet.
  3. Develop principles to guide governments and other stakeholders looking to leverage their food systems to support the SDGs. These principles will set an optimistic and encouraging vision in which food systems play a central role in building a fairer, more sustainable world.
  4. Create a system of follow-up and review to ensure that the Summit’s outcomes continue to drive new actions and progress. This system will allow for the sharing of experiences, lessons, and knowledge; it will also measure and analyze the Summit’s impact.

Why food systems?

The term “food system” refers to the constellation of activities involved in producing, processing, transporting and consuming food. Food systems touch every aspect of human existence. The health of our food systems profoundly affects the health of our bodies, as well as the health of our environment, our economies, and our cultures. When they function well, food systems have the power to bring us together as families, communities, and nations.

Too many of the world’s food systems are fragile, unexamined, and vulnerable to collapse, as millions of people around the globe have experienced first-hand during the COVID-19 crisis. When our food systems fail, the resulting disorder threatens our education, health, and economy, as well as human rights, peace, and security. As in so many cases, those who are already poor or marginalized are the most vulnerable.

Scientists agree that transforming our food systems is among the most powerful ways to change course and make progress towards all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Rebuilding the food systems of the world will also enable us to answer the UN Secretary-General’s call to “build back better” from COVID-19. We are all part of the food system, and so we all must come together to bring about the transformation that the world needs.

There will be a series of events planned in 2021 to further the process. A web site has been established to help interested parties follow this dynamic process.

There are Food Systems Summit Dialogues taking place across all countries in the world, giving all actors an opportunity to shape pathways that will lead to equitable and sustainable food systems by 2030. These are in part facilitated by Dr. David Nabarro, World Food Prize Laureate, and the World Health Organization’s special envoy for Covid-19. But the Summit is clear that many of these Dialogues will be country-led and other Independent Food Systems Summit Dialogues are open to be organized by any community and constituency that takes an interest. You can find more information on the dialogues and how to convene your own at the following website:

You can find the latest working papers of the Scientific Group chaired by Dr. Joachim von Braun on the Summit website:

All these give you and I, as ordinary citizens, a chance to give our views and contribute our ideas and innovations through online dialogues and platforms.

A pre-Summit will take place in Rome, Italy in July 2021 followed by the Summit to be held in conjunction with the UN General Assembly sometime during the week of September 20. Finally, it is important to point out that this Summit has been convened by the Secretary General and he alone will issue any report. It will not have to be negotiated by the UN Member countries or passed by the Security Council.

Marshall Matz is the Chairman of OFW Law in Washington, D.C. mmatz@ofwlaw.com.

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