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History in the Making: The First UN Food Systems Summit

With farmland becoming increasingly more depleted whilst the global population continues to skyrocket, it is clear that effective action to manage global food distribution is needed. The UN’s answer? The first-ever Food Systems Summit.

What is a Food Systems Summit?

The summit is a virtual conference based in New York, due to be held during the UN General Assembly on 23rd September 2021. World leaders, experts, and stakeholders will come together to discuss how to change food production and consumption to align more closely with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN defines a food system as encompassing “every person and every process involved in growing, raising or making food, and getting it into your stomach”.

The topic of concern is not only the method of food production but also its transportation and distribution, as well as discussion on how our diets can be made more sustainable. The UN places emphasis on this summit being ‘solution-based’: the aim is not simply just to stimulate conversation but primarily to set viable goals and a plan of action to achieve them.


Who will be speaking? 

The beauty of this gathering lies in the diversity of its attendees. People of all different backgrounds and specialisms are due to convene at this event and particular emphasis is being placed on the principle of inclusivity. It is being labelled as a summit “for the people”, with farmers, the indigenous community, researchers, academics, young people and the private sector all coming together to bring their unique perspectives. 

Bringing to the foreground the voices of individuals who are native to the lands that are being exploited for food is particularly important in our approach to combating global food injustice. Often there are techniques we can learn from indigenous communities that have learned to live in harmony with the land they inhabit. For example, the indigenous people of North America have been using the agricultural technique of companion planting beans, squash and corn together for centuries; a tradition so ingrained in their culture that these crops have been named ‘the three sisters’.

This system of planting naturally controls pests and ensures that the soil is protected from weathering, as well as providing balanced nutrition from just one plantation. This understanding of symbiotic relationships between crops is just one of many ideas we can learn from indigenous communities and highlights the value of listening to those for whom agriculture is their livelihood.

What will the summit aim to achieve? 

The principal aim of the Food Systems Summit is to transform the way we produce and consume food through an actionable set of targets that will help to achieve the UN’s SDGs by 2030. The actions that will lead to achieving this overarching aim will be organised into five ‘action tracks’. These action tracks can be understood as five goals which the UN wishes to work towards and are labelled as follows:

  1. Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all
  2. Shift to sustainable consumption patterns
  3. Boost nature-positive production
  4. Advance equitable livelihoods
  5. Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress

These action tracks will be implemented by working across what the UN calls ‘levers of change’. These are four areas in which global leaders can focus their efforts to bring about the most change in line with the SDGs, and have been defined as ‘Gender, Human Rights, Finance and Innovation’. The four levers of change intersect across all the action tracks and policymakers are expected to use the two frameworks in conjunction to generate socioeconomically just plans of action. 

Why does it matter?

Hunger and malnutrition are still very much prevalent in today’s world and the Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. Around 854 million people in the world are estimated to be undernourished and the number of people living in famine-like conditions has increased six-fold since the pandemic began in 2020. If we are to achieve SDG 2 by 2030, the goal to end world hunger, urgent action is needed to increase agricultural productivity and sustainability. If you want to learn more about the UN’s ambitious goal to achieve zero hunger, take a look at our previous article on SDG 2 here

It goes without saying that this summit is also needed from a climate perspective. Climate change and food security are inseparably linked in a vicious cycle whereby unsustainable food production worsens climate change which in turn worsens food security. By increasing the prevalence of sustainable food systems, not only do we benefit the environment but also the capacity of the earth to produce food by helping to reduce droughts, wildfires and floods. Without a serious intervention now, it is possible that much of our planet’s land will be unable to yield crops and the oceans will be void of fish. 

Whilst the Food Systems Summit is highly ambitious in its aspirations, it certainly brings hope for a zero hunger future and has the potential to change the direction of food production for good in the coming years. 

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