Reflections: UN Food Systems Summit Pre-Summit and Cities

2 September 2021

A. Trevenen-Jones, M. van Reenen and L.Stroobach.
Images courtesy of UN for UN Food Systems Summit

The UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is set for 23 September 2021. Under the leadership of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the UNFSS Pre-Summit was hosted by the Italian Government in Rome, on 26 – 28 July 2021. 

‘We demonstrated that a People’s Summit and a Solutions Summit are in fact one and the same: we are the solutions to the challenges in our world. We will use the remaining [time] to the Summit to gather momentum, to galvanize accelerated action towards the 2030 Agenda.’  – UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohamed

Trade-offs and solutions

Up for critical discussion were possible food systems trade-offs and solutions with the potential to realise local and global benefits. Informed by a range of member states, global and independent summit dialogues, which were conducted over the past year, a broad spectrum of food systems actors’ voices were heard. Dialogues were framed by five, separately defined but cross linked, UNFSS Action Tracks which are aligned with the summit’s five objectives. The Action Tracks are:

  • Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all
  • Shift to sustainable consumption patterns
  • Boost nature positive production
  • Advance equitable livelihoods
  • Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress

During the pre-summit, women, the youth, indigenous peoples, smallholder farmers’ organisations all voiced the need for inclusive consultation on future food systems. ‘Women are agents of change,’ said Beatriz Argimón, Vice President of Uruguay. Close on 10 000 young people from around the world participated in the pre-summit: ‘We want to sit at the table with you when you make decisions about our future food systems,’ said Rayam Kassam, a youth leader from Lebanon. Greater recognition of land tenure rights and the rights of indigenous peoples was a recurring theme at the pre-summit: ‘We have a vital role to play preserving and guarding nature and our identity,’ said Co-President of the Global Caucus of Indigenous Youth, Jessica Vega Ortega. ‘Food is and should be treated as a public good, a common and a human right, said panellist Wenche Barthe Eide, Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Oslo.

A clear call for action was made for nations and cities, people (individuals and communities) and organisations, across the world, to act urgently and purposefully to transform food systems towards resilient, nature positive, inclusive, and equitable systems which also advance healthy diets. Details of the dialogues and official feedback can be found via the UNFSS dialogues gateway

City and local food systems

Day 3 of the UNFSS Pre-Summit hosted a session on cities and local food systems, co-led by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO) and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and supported by the Urban Food Systems working group. FAO and GAIN facilitate this working group which comprises several city networks, like ICLEI, C40 and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) secretariat, as well as UN agencies, like UN-Habitat, and other organisations, including from wider civil society and academia.

Cities, as the level of government closest to communities and their everyday livelihoods, play a crucial role in basic service provision for all residents and the facilitation of an effective, functioning urban food systems for all – especially for the most vulnerable like the urban poor and with attention to gender.  ‘We have seen the power of cities and local government to effect real change. You’re big enough to have impact, yet small enough to be agile; often more agile than states and local government,’ encouraged Nancy Roman, CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America. The roles of social protection and resilience in terms of food systems, food waste, school meals, food environment and governance were also explored: ‘It’s not just about cities and municipalities leading, but the importance of engaging across sectors, and it’s up to every food system actor in an urban environment to be playing their part in new types of collaboration,’ said Emma Chow, Lead, Food Initiative, Ellen McArthur Foundation.

Recurring themes at the session were the impact of climate change and the need for private sector involvement and investment in healthy, sustainable and equitable food systems: ‘After all these months of collective effort and dialogues, the time has come for supportive words to be followed by supportive actions…We, the members of the working group, are calling upon cities, national governments and all partners to join the call to action to support the establishment of a coalition on urban food systems as a key outcome,’ said Peter Defranceschi (ICLEI Global Food Programme Coordinator) on behalf of the FAO, GAIN and the associated working group. 

‘We cities call upon the support from higher-level government, the private sector,  civil society, and academia to raise their mission and commitment in search of innovation…this Summit is the opportunity of a lifetime to change the course of how we feed the planet. The COVID pandemic has made it even more clear that we are in this together and can achieve our collective goals only by raising the bar together and supporting each other.’ – Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala

A true peoples summit

The pre-summit was open to all who wished to participate. A diversity of society participated, from policymakers, farmers, non-profits, academia, think tanks, nutritionists, environmental specialists, to interested individuals and activists. Some 500 delegates from 108 countries in person, including 62 ministers were hosted. The pre-summit was also the UN’s first hybrid format summit of the COVID-era, with in-person participation coupled with a worldwide virtual programme. More than 17 000 participants joined the pre-summit online from 190 countries. They proposed ambitious new actions and innovative solutions to transform today’s food systems and put the world on track towards safe, resilient, sustainable food systems that can support dietary preferences and healthy diets, for all, by 2030. There were more than 2000 suggestions submitted, for accelerated actions. And at least 750 independent dialogues from more than 100 countries were conducted. 

The Road to New York

This pre-summit paved the way forward for the UNFSS which will be held on 23 September 2021, in New York. It is anticipated that the UN will deliver a Statement of Action that will urge everyone to act more urgently and robustly, in this ‘Decade of Action’, towards the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Where SDG 2: Zero Hunger, and the underlying food systems which span all of the SDGs, from no poverty (SDG 1), health and wellbeing (SDG 3), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13) and peace, justice and strong institutions and partnerships (SDG 16 and 17). The pre-summit affirmed the diversity of food systems and their complexities as well as the critical value indigenous people, producers, women, and youth have to contribute.  Cities stand ready to share their experiences and best practices in tackling the pandemic and the impacts on their residents’ health and food and nutrition security; many will look to national leaders for additional support and resources to ensure solid coordination across their country and region.

‘We can have a more equitable society, and I hope this is something our food systems can achieve. We have to talk about ending hunger, we have to reverse climate change, and we have to bring better livelihoods to people.’ – UN Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit, Dr Agnes Kalibata