Tim Lang’s Field Notes: Where now after the UN Food Systems Summit?

Tim Lang's Field Notes: Where now after the UN Food Systems Summit?

Professor Tim Lang

Thursday 7th October 2021

The UN Food Systems Summit came and went on September 23rd. Critics might argue that one long day (12+ hours) barely gave enough time for all leaders to make their set speeches, let alone for any real work. But such gatherings are rarely about the pomp and grandstanding. The hard work must be done before. The modern language is of sherpas, summits, relays, basecamps, as though it’s to climb a mountain, take pics and then come down. The sober data about the food system require better metaphors than mountaineering. They should be about setting new directions, being realistic about long marches, gathering support, building consensus, agreeing new frameworks, and being honest about failures.

One of the most significant food system gatherings over the last century was surely when 44 countries met in 1943 to analyse what was wrong with the agri-food system pre-war and could/should be done post-war. Called by President Roosevelt, it lasted for three weeks – not one paltry day. Delegates hammered out details, agreed economic, farming and political change was needed to ensure all people were fed, and mapped institutional architecture to help do so. Much was left for post-war realities to fix, but the outlines of a map were there. Not bad for dire circumstances.

In the 21st century, we know that democratic governments can be reluctant to govern, whereas autocratic governments assume omnipotence. Food system dynamics require understanding of policy complexity, not just of the food system’s internal complexity. Today’s food crisis is not just about food’s impact and dependency on health, economics or the environment, but also about multi-level inequalities (domestic to global), methods of production and processing, and the astonishing growth of non-governmental power. Some food corporations have turnovers greater than countries. Advertising and marketing in social media are arguably out of control. Green / health-washing abounds. We can say the UN Food Systems Summit was a failure, but only if we also recognise the complexity today is awesome. Slogans are easy; changing food systems is quite difficult!

The UN put a brave face on it and issued an upbeat summary of the process and outcomes. Nearly 300 commitments were made by national governments. 51,000 people tuned in to the livestream from 193 countries on the day. More importantly, perhaps, months of work was spent in five ‘action tracks’ which were out-sourced to non-governmental leaders and teams. Here’s where new alliances for coming months were forged. Huge numbers of civil society organisations were involved, some from the ‘outside’ track, arguing counter positions, and others on the ‘inside’ track, trying to cajole actions. One of the most significant outcomes might turn out to have been a new omni-framework approach to auditing food systems. Sterling work by Jess Fanzo and 45 fellow scientists proposed five headings on which progress could and should be monitored.

They are correct that changing food systems has to be on multiple ‘fronts’. The UK began to develop such an ‘omni-framework’ after the 2007-09 commodity price crisis and Great Recession. We came up with six headings not five: quality, health, environment, socio-cultural values, economy and governance. Fanzo and colleagues propose: (1) diets, nutrition, and health; (2) environment and climate; (3) livelihoods, poverty, and equity; (4) governance; and (5) resilience and sustainability.

The key point is that the 21st century public and planetary interest is no longer just in quantity or price of food, as though cheaper food makes it better; tougher and more nuanced indicators are needed, such as quality and modes of production; not just carbon but embedded water, biodiversity and inequalities.

Like it or not, the food system is in a slow crisis. Situation normal, yes, but the intensity worsens. Food’s impact on the environment, health, culture, economics and justice makes it a key test, as in 1943, for whether our systems of governance are up to the task of sorting out known problems.

Two other UN mega gatherings are upon us, both lasting several days, not just one. The first is the Convention on Biodiversity, split over four days this October, and two weeks next year, in Kunming, China. And then, in Glasgow, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is reviewed over 13 days.

The Glasgow meeting has the solid agreement of the 2015 Paris Conference from which to review progress and map development. Paris only just got the agreement after the abject failure of the 2009 conference in Copenhagen. Audits published for Glasgow already show that governments are not meeting their commitments.  Too many are fudging data, ducking and diving, saying ‘not now, later’.

Watch this space.

Tim Lang is Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, and a Special Adviser to the Food Research Collaboration.

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