FAO and MEPs issue call to action on food systems transformation: ‘We urgently need to do things differently’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

What would a sustainable food system shift entail? MEPs weigh in / Pic: GettyImages-Malecus85
What would a sustainable food system shift entail? MEPs weigh in / Pic: GettyImages-Malecus85

Related tags Food Systems Summit Fao United nations

The ‘fragility’ of the food system has been exposed by rising hunger levels, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. At an event staged ahead of the UN’s Sustainable Food Summit, the Food and Agriculture Organization and Members of the European Parliament outlined the urgent need to act.

“The pandemic has brought about a crisis of unprecedented magnitude. It is a wake-up call to use our planet’s natural resources more sustainably and responsibly,”​ Qu Dongyu, Director General of the FAO, told an event co-hosted with the European Parliamentary Alliance Against Hunger and Malnutrition this morning (21 May).

Before the pandemic, UN figures showed 690m people are chronically under nourished, while an unsafe food supply effects one in 10 people globally. “The pandemic’s impact exasperated the situation,”​ the Director General stressed. Indeed, the FAO 2021 Global Report on Food Crises shows a steady increase in food insecurity. 'Acute' food insecurity - at crisis or worse levels - now impacts 155m people.

“The pandemic also exposed the fragility of current agro-food systems and highlighted the need to transform them.”

Progress on food system transformation has the potential to not only ‘build back better’ after COVID but also to get the world ‘back on track’ if it is to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Qu continued. Reinvesting our methods of food production, distribution and consumption could address issues that range from hunger and access to nutrition, to poverty eradication, rural development and climate mitigation. 

Paolo de Castro, an IMEP and former Italian Minister of Agriculture, agreed that COVID-19 has changed the way policymakers think about the food system, highlighting the ‘key role’ of food safety as well as the system’s vulnerability, exposed as it is to issues around climate change and the breakdown of ecosystems. “The COVID pandemic has shown the strong link between human health and planetary health… The challenges [food production faces] show the fragility of the food system but, on the other side, pave the way for a major opportunity we cannot miss.”

The UN Food Systems Summit: 'A new and inspiring narrative'  

In recognition of the important role the food system will play in meeting the SGDs, the UN is convening the first Food Systems Summit this year.

“The UN Food Systems Summit is born out of the real need to accelerate action”​ towards a more efficient, resilient, inclusive and sustainable global food system, Rodrigo de Lapuerta Director of the FAO’s Liaison Office explained.

By facilitating a multilateral dialogue on the challenges and opportunities presented by the food system, the UN hopes to galvanise global efforts and build on national plans to support a shift to more sustainable food production. 

“Challenges become opportunities; let us seize them together and transform our agri-food system for people and planet,”​ Qu urged.

One of the outcomes of the Summit will be a 'political document' based on a summary of the event – but one that does not require political approval, Martin Frick, Deputy Special Envoy, UNFSS, explained. This document will represent a ‘new and inspiring narrative’, he told delegates.

Human rights and environmental impacts 

But what will this new narrative include?

Qu elaborated: “We urgently need to do things differently… Soon the table will need to be set for 10bn people. Transforming the agro-food system will require innovative approaches and digital technologies, fostering economic diversification and investing in health, education, human capacity, social protection infrastructure.”

For de Castro, who chairs the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, social inclusion is an important aspect of the shift that is needed. He stressed the importance of the ‘social dimension of this transformation’ and insisted ‘in the process, nobody must be left behind’.

MEP Maria Soraya Rodriguez Ramos suggested that the ‘people who are going to be leading this transition’ – who she identified as ‘small scale farmers… particularly women’ – need to be placed at the centre of the political process. “We need to make our food system more inclusive and fair. We need to make women’s rights a priority,”​ she argued.

Building a resilient food system is relevant for developing economies in the global south, particularly on the African continent where food system transformation should go hand-in-hand with rural development, she continued. “I am convinced of the power and transformative potential of our food system.”

MEP Isabel Carvalhais who sits on the committees for agricultural and rural development and fisheries, agreed that resetting the food system can deliver ‘various social, economic and environmental outcomes’, including poverty alleviation.

“One major structural problem is not necessarily the quantity of food but the existence of extreme imbalances in the access to food due to social and economic inequality,”​ she argued. She pointed to the potential of regenerative agriculture, climate mitigation and adaption and poverty alleviation to re-invent the world’s relationship with the food system.

“Food systems are at the very heart of fundamental dimensions of our lives, such as human health, food security, nutrition, social justice, protection of ecosystems and fight against climate change,” ​she stressed. “Food system [transformation] must be approached in an integrated manner.”

Sustainable consumption shift

Changing the economics of the food system offers a clear opportunity at a production level to enhance human rights. Likewise Prof Joachim von Braun, Chair of the UN Food System Science Group, noted that an economic shift can also impact the consumption side of the ledger.

“We need to incentivize the availability and affordability of healthy diets and nutritious foods. We must ensure that the price of food reflects two costs. We must revisit the value of food. Food is cultural, it is many things. But the value of food defined through market prices is distorting. It does not include external costs like climate damage, biodiversity loss, health costs. Sustainable and healthy food is too expensive. Unsustainable and unhealthy food is too cheap,”​ he argued.

As to what this sustainable consumption shift would look like, MEP Francisco Guerreiro suggested that there needs to be a move towards diets that are more plant-based and more local. “It is clear… that we need to shift our way of producing, distributing and consuming food in Europe [and] around the world. One of the priorities is to acknowledge that we need to implement a more plant-based diet, more localised food with better distribution in local markets, and reducing the distribution and consumption of food so the ecological footprint would be less.”​ 

The Sustainable Food Systems Summit is due to be held in September, with a pre-summit scheduled to take place in Rome from 26-28 July. For more details, click HERE​. 

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