OPINION: Time to mend our relationship with food

Our food systems must change to achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Agnes Kalibata is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. Since 2015 she has served as President of AGRA

Food is more than what we eat.

It’s more than what satisfies our hunger. It’s more than what nourishes our bodies and our brains. It’s more than a cultural centerpiece or even an Instagram picture.  Food is water, land, culture, labor, technology, economics, and policies.

In a word, food is everything.

Today, our relationship with food is strained. The way we produce, process and consume food – what experts call “food systems” – is a paradox.

Over the last 50 years, our ability to produce food has gone up by nearly 300 percent thanks to our incredible ability to innovate. Despite this progress, the number of people going to bed hungry each night has increased to 820 million over the last three years. Yet, we waste 35 per cent of all the food we produce equivalent to a loss of US$936 billion annually.

Additionally, we are not eating well. About 2 billion people are obese or have food related diseases. Fruits and vegetables account for only 11 per cent of global food production, despite recommendations that they should make up around half of our diet.

As a result, for every dollar spent on food, society pays back double that in health, environmental, and economic costs. Surprisingly, these costs – which amount to $5.7 trillion per year globally – equal those related to issues such as obesity, diabetes, and malnutrition.

Climate change is challenging our food systems event further with droughts, floods, and massive fires around the world. For example, in East Africa and across the Middle East and South Asia, locust are destroying crops in biblical proportions. A swarm covering one square kilometer is eating as much food in a day as 35,000 people.

Our current food system is part of the problem. Today’s agricultural supply chain, from farm to fork, accounts for around 27 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The food systems of today must change to achieve the ambitious goals and targets we have set for ourselves in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This transformation will require an unprecedented degree of cooperation if we are to succeed.

That is why this week, on behalf of the UN Secretary General António Guterres, I joined Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. We announced the Arctic Call to Action on Food Security and Climate Change along with 17 SDG Advocates from communities around the world, recognizing the importance of agricultural biodiversity and transforming food systems for the future of our nutrition, health, and resilience to climate change.

I know that rethinking food is ‘complicated’. We know many approaches and recommendations that seem to provide benefit.  But ‘knowing’ something does not mean that things change. So what really is the problem that we must solve? 

UN Secretary-General Guterres has announced that he will host a Food Systems Summit in 2021 to raise food system transformation to the highest level, affirming its centrality to the achievement of the majority of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Summit will raise global ambition, increase our understanding of the problems we must solve, and set a course to radically change the way we produce, process, and consume food. 

We need to harness all innovative ideas and develop deeper partnerships to make this happen. As the Summit’s Special Envoy, I will steward a global conversation to define the food systems we want for our future. This will be done by learning from each other, particularly smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples, and those who deal with food systems every day. 

I am determined that this will not be ‘just another conference,’ particularly because we have come to a crossroads and we are running out of time.

I look to the Summit as an opportunity to fast-track and commit to ambitious ways of coming through on the SDGs by bringing global consensus on what our future food systems should be, given the challenges; agreeing and aligning on the dramatic shifts that we know must happen; and delivering an ambitious and game-changing action plan for this decade of action. Only then shall we eliminate hunger, commit to more inclusive and healthier food systems, and safeguard the health of our planet.

Every one of us has a role to play. Often, we think other people have to change, or that our individual contribution is too small to matter. But really, everything and everyone must change; change the way we produce, the way we shop, the way we eat, and more.

Let us make use of our great creativity and human spirit, and listen to everyone, not just those who agree with the popular point of view.  Make sure your voice is heard!

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