Commitments to eradicate hunger and address climate change will receive a lot of attention at the United Nations Food Systems Summit taking place on Thursday, but new reports released in advance of the event demonstrate the steep challenges faced by the world’s nations.

Nestlé, for example, said this week it was transitioning to a “regenerative agricultural system” and would pay a premium for goods produced using methods that enhance biodiversity and conserve soil.

Another global food company, DSM, which manufactures feed additives, said by 2030, it is “working towards … reducing the environmental footprint of food consumption and production through enabling double-digit on-farm livestock emission reduction and reaching 150 million people with nutritious, sustainable plant-based protein foods.”

And a private-sector coalition focusing on soil health said it would propose “actionable roadmaps to enhance regenerative agricultural practices.” The coalition includes BASF, Bayer, Corteva, Nestlé, Nutrien, OCP, PepsiCo, Rabobank, Syngenta, Yara, CropLife International and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which itself has more than 200 CEOs.

Governments also have been positioning themselves for the summit, which will feature ambitious pledges to "transform" food systems.

Tom Vilsack

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, for example, told reporters the U.S. would launch an ag productivity coalition at the summit as a counter to the European Union's Farm-to-Fork strategy that calls for steep reductions in pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Vilsack said the U.S. emphasis on climate-smart, "sustainable" agriculture does not have to result in a drop in production, as some fear could happen with the EU plan.

“We believe that actually, a more sustainable agriculture can also be a more productive agriculture and can, in fact, meet the needs and demands of a growing global population," Vilsack said last week.

The summit is a step toward achieving the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Goal No. 2 is “zero hunger” in a world where between 700 million to 800 million people are undernourished. Goal No. 13 is “climate action."

A new UN report that looks at countries’ climate change commitments shows that even if they are fulfilled, global temperatures will rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

“The total global [greenhouse gas] emission level in 2030, taking into account implementation of all the latest [national goals], is expected to be 16.3% above the 2010 level,” says the report.

“We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action. The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said. “This report shows just how far off course we are.”

Meanwhile, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization released a report calling for “repurposing” of agricultural subsidies.

“Eighty-seven percent of current support to agricultural producers, approximately $540 billion per year, include measures that are often inefficient, inequitable, distort food prices, hurt people’s health, and degrade the environment,” FAO said in releasing the report.

Madhur Gautam, a lead economist with the Agriculture and Food Global Practice at the World Bank, tells Agri-Pulse that a new analysis the bank just concluded with the International Food Policy Research "finds that repurposing existing subsidies (rather than eliminating them altogether) offers the ‘best-bet’ option to promote a transformation of the food system for a healthier planet, healthier people and a healthier economy."

Repurposing only "a fraction" of the current support provided to agriculture through public funds to research and development "that produces more emission-efficient technologies for crops and livestock would deliver huge gains," Gautam said: "by raising the national real incomes, by increasing food production, by significantly reducing GHG emissions, by significantly lowering the prices of healthier foods, and not only saving the entire land that is expected to come into production over the next 20 years, but in fact reducing agriculture’s terrestrial footprint by near 26 million hectares by 2040 — with huge economic gains through increased biodiversity and ecosystem services from the land saving."

But the FAO report also notes the complexity of the issue.

“For example, a removal of [corn] or soybean cropland in the [U.S.] through its Conservation Reserve Program could result in higher global prices and encourage conversion of grasslands or forests to cropland in other regions (such as Brazil), resulting in a potential loss of biodiversity or increase in GHG emissions through deforestation.”

Interestingly, the summit has gotten criticism from both the ag industry and Indigenous peoples, both of which have claimed their concerns were not being heard. That prompted Martin Frick, deputy to the special envoy for the summit, to say on a webinar last week, “As a diplomat, if you do any sort of international process, and you make opposite parties equally unhappy, you've been doing a decent job.”

Frick said organizers have made a concerted effort to gather a wide variety of views, especially those of Indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, there has been controversy around the summit, and hundreds of grassroots groups are boycotting it, claiming the summit has been co-opted by corporate interests.

Frick, however, said one idea that has been introduced during the summit’s organizing period as a possible “game-changer” is an Indigenous Peoples Food Systems Trust. During the summit on Thursday, Indigenous peoples will have a say at the beginning of the summit” when they have an opportunity to speak, Frick said.

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Martin Frick

Martin Frick, deputy to the special envoy

Melissa Ho, senior vice president for freshwater and food at the World Wildlife Fund-U.S., said among the summit leaders, “there is a deep, deep commitment to representing the voice of the producers and the stakeholders on the ground.”

One WWF official is chairing the summit’s “action track” on boosting nature-positive production. The other tracks are: ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; shift to sustainable consumption patterns; advance equitable livelihoods; and build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress.

Ho said excitement around the summit stems in part from its elevation of the role of food systems beyond their obvious connection to food security and nutrition, but to a level “on par with where we are" on the UN's climate change conference scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 12 in Glasgow.

The summit process has collected ideas, dubbed "game-changers," for making progress on the sustainable development goals, and those ideas "are not going to go away after the summit, Ho said. 

“The summit is about creating a real sense of urgency, real sets of specific ideas and actions,” she said.

"Game-changers" from the summit's “sustainable consumption patterns” include:

  • A major shift in demand for and/or consumption of safe foods that contribute to healthy diets from sustainable production systems. including more than doubling the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
  • At the global level, and particularly concerning more affluent populations, a reduction of excessive consumption of animal-sourced foods, especially red meat, and an increase in consumption of plant-rich diets and a switch to animal products from sustainable practices;
  • A reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods high in unhealthy fats, free sugars, and salt/sodium.

While the World Wildlife Fund isn't opposed to meat consumption, “I feel like we definitely cannot consume, globally, per capita, the rates of consumption of meat that we do in countries like the U.S., Brazil and Europe," Ho said.

At the same time, she said, “there are places in the world that need to have sources of quality, accessible, nutritious food” that include meat.

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