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Impressions of the UNFSS: The Positives, the Negatives, and the Remaining Questions

Fresh vegetables, fruits, and eggs.

Photo: Brooke Lark / Unsplash.

On the 23rd and 24th of September 2021, the long-awaited United Nations Food Systems Summit  (UNFSS) took place. Announced by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres in December 2019, the UNFSS had during its 18 months-long process engaged persons globally in dialogues, activities, as well as a pre-Summit, to launch, ‘bold new actions, solutions and strategies to deliver on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’, which then culminated in the Summit itself. For the first time, the topic of food systems, in all its complexity and importance, would be raised at such a high-level meeting.

Here at SIANI, we followed the process of the UNFSS from its early days till the Summit’s last session- and not only that, we were actively engaged in co-organising national dialogues as part of the UNFSS’ preparatory process. In this post, we would like to share our impressions and reflections of the UNFSS, with specific focus on the Summit itself. In doing this we will make comparisons with, and refer to, the alternative Global People’s Summit on Food Systems, as well as raise the questions which the UNFSS has left us with.

Transparency matters

When a high-level event like the UNFSS claims that it will bring about ‘bold new actions’, the first question which will be on one’s lips is, ‘how?’. The UNFSS itself has undoubtedly engaged many, spanned continents, and consisted of numerous interactive components. Apart from its Dialogues, people could participate by for example, tuning in to the UNFSS’s Public Forum events centred around the UNFSS’ levers of change, exploring the Science Days organised by the Scientific Group, as well as becoming a Food System Hero .

However, it has not always been clear how these different components of the UNFSS interlink, and especially, how they would connect to the pre-Summit and the Summit. For example, when we look at the dialogues which had three different types of formats: Member State Summit Dialogues (national), Global Summit Dialogues, and Independent Summit Dialogues (independent), there was more comprehensive information on the process of how information from the national dialogues would be integrated into the final presentations at the Summit, in comparison to that for the Independent Dialogues. Now, even after the Summit has taken place, we still feel that it has not been made clear how the themes arising from the feedback forms of the Independent Dialogues influenced the final Summit event, as well as the activities undertaken by member states, private actors, and non-for-profit organisations, in relation to food systems transformation.  Here, it has more so, not been made explicit which weight each type of dialogue would have in the influence over initiatives and pledges coming about from the UNFSS journey. As such, we believe that improved communications of these aspects would have managed one’s expectations of being able to contribute to the Summit and its ultimate outcomes.

The lack of transparency surrounding the preparations, structure, and intended impacts of the different components of the UNFSS, has been a recurring critique expressed by many. For example, the process has been criticised  by civil society organisations, researchers, as well as present and former special rapporteurs on the right to food, for bypassing existing UN intergovernmental platforms, such as the Committee on Food Security (CFS). The CFS has been working on transforming food systems for years and has crucial institutional structures that seek to ensure transparent and inclusive decision-making processes through multi-stakeholder deliberation. The lack of consideration toward having the CFS take place prior to the UN Secretary General’s announcement of the UNFSS, raised questions that, to our knowledge, have yet to be fully resolved.

The question of inclusivity

When it comes to the topic of inclusivity, the UNFSS emphasised this as being one of its key strengths, even calling itself, ‘the People’s Summit’. However, the extent to which the UNFSS lived up to that name remains contested. The question of inclusivity in the UNFSS process (including the Summit itself) has especially been brought up by the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems (GPS). The GPS was organised as a protest event against the UNFSS, coming from the point of view that the UNFSS were prioritising the interests of private corporations rather than those of smallholder farmers, Indigenous People, and marginalised communities. Additionally, in this protest the GPS highlighted that the UNFSS was undermining traditional knowledge in the name of status quo technological advancements, as well as that the UNFSS were not bringing enough attention to the issues of unsustainable resource extraction and farming practices (e.g. monocropping) within our food systems.

In encouraging member states and any other interested party to organise dialogues, the Summit aimed to ensure a UNFSS process that would be as diverse and inclusive as possible. Drawing on our experiences of the Swedish national dialogues, it is clear that a great amount of effort was put into ensuring participation from a wide array of actors from all types of sectors and backgrounds. More so, we commend here all those who participated for their active engagement. However, with the national dialogues being invitation-only events and taking on a virtual format- and thus, requiring the know-how of digital meeting tools from participants- this may have meant that important perspectives regarding our food systems were missed out on.

What happens ahead of the UNFSS?

Although the UNFSS may be over, the struggle to transform our food systems continues. During the UNFSS each member state and involved organisation was able to describe their work within the food systems area and their commitment to various coalitions and strategies. However, both when watching the Summit, and now after, it is difficult to comprehend the Summit’s concrete outcomes as an event.

The UNFSS was built on voluntary participation via initiatives at the country level. Despite the problems which can be associated with this type of voluntary format, the UNFSS’ lack of enforcement mechanisms may arguably have facilitated engagement and engendered a greater willingness to make commitments to coalitions and strategies, especially among governments. Going forward, however, we do need to see great governmental action based on solid plans for monitoring and achieving progress, which leaders are kept accountable to. If we leave it to voluntary action, nothing will change. Yet, with more than  300 commitments made by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to accelerate the transformation of food systems during the UNFSS, we are hopeful that the Summit has been a significant stepping stone in the right direction.

Pulling it all together

It is safe to say that our overall impressions of the UNFSS were mixed – and perhaps, more so confused. We are definitely impressed when it comes to efforts made by those organising associated activities and engagements, as well as those investing their time and energy to engage in these. However, we criticise the lack of transparency surrounding the structure, process, and purpose of the UNFSS, as well as its contradictory stance on inclusivity. Ultimately, we had hoped that the ultimate Summit would have somewhat clarified a more globalised pathway for the transformation of food systems, but instead it has left us asking what the Summit event- in itself- was able to achieve. Going forward, we think the UNFSS has demonstrated that even though an initiative’s end may be praiseworthy, its means must be delivered in a transparent and inclusive manner.

This blog was written by Ebba Engström (Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute, SEI), Josefine Jacobsson (Intern at SIANI), Marta Anguera (Engagement Officer at SIANI), and Magdalena Knobel (Communications Consultant). Views are their own.