World Food Day: ‘New momentum’ for food system fix but words need to be put into action

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Food sector urged to act on sustainability commitments this World Food Day / Pic: GettyImages-Malecus85
Food sector urged to act on sustainability commitments this World Food Day / Pic: GettyImages-Malecus85

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The United Nations has said it sees ‘new momentum and energy’ around the transition to a sustainable food system. But campaigners warn that words need to be put into action.

World Food Day 2021, a global event hosted annually by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), took place this Saturday (16 October).

Speaking at the World Food Day celebration, Director General Qu Dongyu, noted that this year’s World Food Day finds the world at a "critical moment​". Despite difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, "in the past year we have also witnessed the resilience and strength within each of us,​" he said.

Qu noted that world hunger levels are rising. Over the past year the number of people who are classified hungry rose to 811m, 161m more than in 2019. At the same time, 14% of food is lost and 17% is wasted.

This disparity in access to nutrition was also noted by Pope Francis as he addressed the event. “We are currently witnessing a real paradox in terms of access to food: on the one hand, more than three billion people do not have access to a nutritious diet, while on the other hand, almost two billion are overweight or obese due to a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle,”​ the pontiff said.

Also speaking at the celebration, World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley stressed that a food system fix is needed to reduce food insecurity and ensure access to nutrition for all. 

“We’re facing unprecedented challenges to global food security right now,”​ he told the audience. “We’ll only succeed in ending hunger if we ensure our global food systems are fit for the twenty-first century. That’s why, at WFP, we’re working to strengthen food systems so they support healthy diets for everyone – especially the most vulnerable communities.”

‘Our actions are our future’

The theme of this year’s World Food Day was ‘our actions are our future’. It aims to stand as a rallying call to inspire everyone to contribute to the transformation of the agri-food system.

The FAO's ambition is to support the development of a system that offers ‘Better Production, Better Nutrition, a Better Environment and a Better Life’.

Qu said that the transition towards a sustainable food system needs to ‘start with ordinary consumers’ and the daily choices they make about the food they buy, how they are packaged and how much is wasted.

“All of us have the potential to be food heroes. Our actions are our future. But it doesn’t end with you and me. The old adage goes: ‘We are what we eat.’ It also holds true that how our children and grandchildren develop will be influenced as well by what we eat,”​ he wrote in an opinion piece to mark World Food Day.

Addressing delegates, Qu also highlighted the progress that is being made through efforts like the UN Food Systems Summit and the World Food Forum, which was held earlier this month in Rome.

The FAO has helped develop a new ten-year strategic framework, defining concrete inputs. According to the organisation’s estimates, up to $40-to-$50 billion in annual investments on targeted interventions are needed to end hunger by 2030.

Targeted research and development and digital innovation to make farming more technologically advanced and improved literacy rates among women can significantly help reduce hunger. Better data, governance and institutions are also essential, FAO said.

“Together, we have been rolling up our sleeves to lead the implementation and drive the transformation,”​ Qu commented.

Food companies must ‘put words into actions’

But while FAO has hailed the progress and momentum that is building towards a food system transformation, some commentators have flagged that the industry needs to put ambitions into actions that will support change.

Jo Raven, Senior Manager, Research and Engagement at £45trn investor coalition FAIRR, agreed that progress has been made – but insisted there is much further to go.

“This World Food Day, the FAO has stressed the importance of a sustainable food system to ‘deliver food security and nutrition for all’. Currently, food production contributes to one-third of global emissions, is responsible for approximately 80% of global deforestation and uses 70% of global freshwater; this demonstrates the vital need for change, as our food system cannot be secure until it is more sustainable,” ​she told FoodNavigator.

FAIRR has led a five-year investor engagement ​with leading food retailers and manufacturers on the protein transition, supporting the argument that a sustainable food system requires a greater focus on plant-based. According to the investor coalition, it has seen a wave of climate commitments from the food sector.

This year, 68% of companies in the engagement expressed a commitment to reduce emissions across their animal agriculture value chain, an increase from 48% from last year and 29% in 2019. FAIRR said this indicates ‘real progress’ on addressing scope 3 emissions. Over half - 52% - of the companies in FAIRR's engagement now have a net-zero ambition compared to just 8% (Nestlé and Amazon) in 2019. 

Raven said this demonstrates ‘notable signs of change’ from food retailers and manufacturers over the last five years. “The number of firms adopting formal targets for protein diversification has grown from zero to seven in three years,” ​she added.

However, Raven continued: “There’s work to do to ensure food companies are putting their words into actions. Some key food firms are over-reliant on offsets rather than tangible long-term decarbonisation to reach their net zero goals and a number of firms are still failing to disclose their emissions footprint across their value chains.

“This World Food Day, FAIRR is keen to see more firms setting targets for protein transition, addressing deforestation in their supply chains, being transparent about their carbon footprint and setting science-based targets to reduce it. These steps will prove crucial to delivering healthy and nutritious food to growing populations in a warmer world and should be front and centre at COP26.”

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