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Commentary Article November 2nd, 2021
Energy • Innovation • Health • Delivery • International Development

How do we build healthy, equitable food systems that work for everyone?

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"Many solutions for healthy & sustainable food systems are being implemented around the world. Yet, interconnected global action remains too slow & fragmented, with decision-makers lacking the ambition needed for radical, transformative impact." @HelenaCLeurent @RuthOpenBlue @Branca59

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The UN Food Systems Summit was an important & symbolic first step towards bringing the challenge of food systems transformation to the fore. @HelenaCLeurent @RuthOpenBlue @Branca59 highlight 6 immediate opportunities for change

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Today an estimated 370 million children have lost access to free school meals, and an additional 118 to 161 million people have become food insecure. The need for systemic transformation of our food systems has become more urgent than ever before.

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Contemporary food systems are making us, and our planet, sick. The ways we produce, distribute, and consume food are failing to serve global populations fairly and sustainably and to provide us all with the nourishment we need to stay healthy. 

Unsustainable land and agriculture practices are damaging our ecosystems and contributing to climate change - which is in turn disrupting production. Our food systems are scarred by power imbalances that favour the rich and those living in high-income countries. Each year nearly 8 million people die because they are unable to eat a healthy, balanced diet. A further 420 000 people die from consuming unsafe - often contaminated- foods.

All of this is exacerbated by climate change, the impacts of which fall heaviest on the most vulnerable in our societies: women, smallholder farmers, and other marginalized communities.

Unsustainable land and agriculture practices are damaging our ecosystems and contributing to climate change - which is in turn disrupting production. Our food systems are scarred by power imbalances that favour the rich and those living in high-income countries.

COVID-19 has brought these weaknesses out into the open and further compounded food insecurity and nutrition challenges worldwide, with dire consequences. Today an estimated 370 million children have lost access to free school meals, and an additional 118 to 161 million people have become food insecure. The need for systemic transformation of our food systems has become more urgent than ever before.

This should not and need not happen.

Many solutions for healthy and sustainable food systems exist and are being implemented around the world. Yet, interconnected global action remains too slow and fragmented, with policy- and decision-makers lacking the ambition needed for radical, transformative impact. 

The UN Food Systems Summit in September this year represented a significant opportunity to galvanize action and commitments to ensure that food systems deliver healthy and safe diets for all, fairly and within planetary boundaries.

Our three organizations - Consumers International, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and the World Health Organization – united around calls for food systems that are healthy, equitable, and resilient, and we worked to rally our diverse communities around key pathways to transformation. 

Three weeks on, we are asking ourselves: did the Summit meet our expectations? Has it provided the much-needed push to accelerate global action? Will our food systems change for the better as a result of the commitments made?

This Summit brought food systems transformation onto the political and social agenda like never before, and that is a significant outcome. Some 40,000 people across the world engaged in the independent dialogues, an unprecedented linking of local and global agendas. And, notable steps forward were made on a number of fronts.

El Salvador laid out a visionary pathway to deliver healthy diets through all stages of life, while Fiji championed the need for transformative action to tackle the noncommunicable disease crisis. Denmark led the charge on dietary guidelines which integrate environmental sustainability, while Guyana and Ghana shared visions for locally produced, biodiverse, and nutritious food production, drawing on traditional and Indigenous knowledge and practices.

The critical question now is what happens next. 

With COP26 taking place this week in Glasgow and the Nutrition for Growth Summit just weeks away, urgent priorities are still yet to be sufficiently addressed. 

These include: the need to uphold and normalize the principle that food is not a commodity, but a human right for all; to introduce mechanisms of accountability, oversight, and meaningful participation and monitoring for all food systems actors and stakeholders; and, to ensure that all solutions are grounded in systems-thinking, are culturally and context-specific, and uphold the principle of interconnectedness moving beyond one-dimensional approaches to food systems transformation. 

The UN Food Systems Summit was an important and symbolic first step towards bringing the challenge of food systems transformation to the fore, now we must continue advancing bold, transformative, collaborative, and systemic action. This level of ambition is needed to balance both human and planetary health; all stakeholders, from producers to suppliers to consumers, from doctors to lawmakers, must work together on this shared agenda. Our health, our children’s health, our animals’ health, and our ecosystems and planetary health, are all intrinsically linked -- so too must be our solutions.

The UN Food Systems Summit was an important and symbolic first step towards bringing the challenge of food systems transformation to the fore, now we must continue advancing bold, transformative, collaborative, and systemic action.

We see six immediate opportunities for change. They are to: 

  1. shift from voluntary commitments to binding policy agreements; 

  2. uphold diverse evidence and proven best practice about context-specific interventions; 

  3. protect policymaking and resource allocations from corporate influence, conflicts of interest, and opportunism; 

  4. shift public, private, and philanthropic financial flows, including subsidies, away from harmful practices and towards regenerative, renewable, and healthy systems; 

  5. put an end to greenwashing and misleading food information and marketing campaigns; 

  6. and, above all, make a collective commitment to a human rights-based approach to food systems transformation, that puts people and planet before profit. 

Bold developments are already happening on each of these fronts but to further accelerate, we need ambitious action that connects agendas, fills the gaps, and seizes the opportunities for collaboration that were created because of the Summit. 

From the coalitions of action (on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, school meals, decent livelihoods, agroecology, and many more) and country-led pathways for systems transformation to forthcoming climate pledges and country NDCs, we need to be courageous and reach across the divides, to uphold our global obligations to normative principles and existential targets, to put people before profit standing up for the many and not just the few. 

This is non-negotiable to a brighter, better future of food so let’s get cooking.

Written by:

Dr. Francesco Branca Director, Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, World Health Organization
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Helena Leurent Director General, Consumers International
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Ruth Richardson Executive Director, Global Alliance for the Future of Food
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