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The role of science and knowledge in food systems transformation

Elena Sam Pec, Puente Viejo, Guatemala

Photo: Ryan Brown (UN Women) / flickr.

What is the key to co-creating a sustainable future, where quality food is available for all without harming people or the planet? What do scientists, civil society, the private sector and policy makers need to consider when creating solutions for sustainable food systems? What is the role of science and knowledge in eradicating hunger and strengthening agri-food systems?

These were questions that the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) Science Days (July 8th and 9th 2021), aimed at answering. This event was convened by the Scientific Committee of the UNFSS, and gathered scientists, activists, policy makers, experts from the private sector as well as farmers representatives in preparation for the pre-Summit at the end of July 2021 and the Summit itself, to take place in September 2021.

The event was impressive, with many inputs from guest speakers on tackling challenges within food systems from distinct angles. A common trait of all interventions was the urgency of the problem – if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 and to alleviate billions of people from hunger and malnutrition, we don’t have a lot of time. The worldwide nutritional status, on an upward curve in 2019, has seen its state worsening in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted entire agri-food chains. Nearly one third of the world population lacks year-long access to adequate food, about 10% of the population suffers from undernourishment, while obesity is on the rise. These phenomena can increasingly be observed within the same country, the gap between population groups – inequality – is widening.

The urgent need to combat malnutrition in all its forms implies common and coordinated complements action amongst all actors within the agri-food sector. Even though the event focused on high-level policy decisions, the voices of the smallest shall not be forgotten. The topic of acknowledgment of underrepresented groups (such as youth, women or indigenous people) in high-level decisions was touched upon by both the conveners, the guest speakers and the audience, one side event rightly focused on the importance of youth inclusion in agri-food systems. Heavily criticised in the past for only including conventional agriculture and modern technologies as the solution to create sustainable food systems, the UNFSS wants to take another approach. Cooperation between all actors was alluded to, leaving room for all kinds of science and knowledge to tackle challenges within food systems. Yet there are clear signs that not all parties are enabled to sit at the same table, and that such groups – such as indigenous groups – are seen as more of a barrier to progress than an equal partner;

“There’s no need to start fighting, it’s time to work together and to interlink – if we don’t move fast, it might be too late” said Josefa Sacko, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture

Outcomes by the Scientific Committee

The first day kicked-off with the presentation of a strategic paper that 28 appointed scientists have prepared, to serve as the base for scientific recommendation during the Summit. 50 background papers, amongst them the outcome of the Swedish National Dialogues, initiatives throughout the globe and relevant, essential publications have been scrutinised and summarised in seven points, underscoring the role of science and research to achieve the Goals of the Food Systems Summit.

How science can contribute to the transformation of food systems

The platform then opened to guest speakers from various sectors and regions to propose their answers to the questions; How can science contribute the achievement of sustainable food systems and of the Sustainable Development Goals – SDG2 in particular? What must happen in society as a whole to reach the target of Zero Hunger by 2030?

The guest speakers concretised steps that need to be taken in order to transform food systems.

Food systems need to be thought of in their pluralistic and complex form, implying many different systems, all unique and context-specific, including individual characteristics, climatic conditions, traditions, know-how and much more. Both production and consumption side need to be considered when researching and applying solutions on the ground, as well as all the steps in-between, constituting entire agri-food systems. Moreover, the inclusion of aquatic resources in decision-making is essential. Fish- and fish product-based diets represented 17 % of total animal protein consumption in 2017. Along with crustaceans and algae, the contribution of aquatic resources to human consumption is considerable. Solutions muss be tailored to specific population needs and take into account local resources of all kinds.

Applied science is an asset, projects and solutions need to be co-created and co-designed with local communities, for a better understanding of local needs. In the same holistic vein, links to issues such as human capital and infrastructure shall not be forgotten when discussing food systems. Nor shall trade-offs and synergies between the different SDGs and various solutions. Complexity can bring many entry points for solution.

Besides that, policy briefs, as stated by Shen Xiaomeng, Director, UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security; “are oftentimes too long for policy makers. They want something short and action-oriented; science going often deeper than policy makers have capacity to”. Policy makers want easily applicable and understandable solutions.

Marginalised groups such as small-scale farmers are largely underrepresented on a decisional level, whereas they greatly contribute to the functioning of food systems. Small-scale farmers are producing over 70% of the world’s food, but are excluded from decision-making and largely underrepresented on a high decisional level. This must change; youth, women, indigenous people and small-scale farmers, with their own skills and knowledge, have to be included at all stages, reminded Preet Lidder, Technical Adviser at the FAO: “Decisions and outcomes can only be as strong as the diversity of ideas and experiences brought to the table.” People should be empowered, in order to adopt new techniques but also to gain assurance and understanding about the importance of the job they’re doing. Research should target all, both in process and in application.

The rural exodus continues; people moving to the city are making a bet that they will be better off depending on commodity markets than growing their own food. In 2020, over half of the worldwide population lived in an urban area, representing 56% in 2020. Besides designing solutions to grow food in and around cities, incentives should exist to ensure a rejuvenation of agriculture and a bettering of conditions in rural areas. There are plenty of potential opportunities within all parts of the food system, however interest need to be re-inspired in people, and rural infrastructure (e.g. education, public transportation, roads, telecommunication) play a crucial role for that.

Other than bettering infrastructure in rural areas, people’s interest in agriculture and solutions brought by science must be sparked in order to ignite acceptance and understanding towards new technologies. Only if researchers reach out to civil society and make their research processes and results transparent can issues be understood and people have a well-informed opinion.

The issue of an outdated poverty line was raised, as it is currently not meeting any social standard at all but merely relying on the access to financial resources. There’s a need to revise it, which would lead to higher social standards and imply better, pro-poor policies.

On the other side, there’s a need to rethink living standards and investments of rich nations, that can’t continue their business-as-usual approach. (Over)consumption patterns are changing worldwide in multiple directions, food systems must change, too, if we are to feed ourselves adequately. While food waste needs to be cut down drastically in rich nations, securing consumption of healthy and nutritious food is an asset in all countries.

Lastly, the Science Days participants all called for coherent action, that should and could take the form of a kind of Food Systems Paris Agreement. Research results need to be shared amongst all interested parties, all countries should benefit from improvements within food systems, just as “all countries have benefits when one single country decreases greenhouse gas emissions”, as Louise Fresco, President of the Executive Board, Wageningen University & Research, put it, underscoring the existing interdependency between actors and factors on Earth.

Build forward better, together

Science and knowledge can present solutions, share projections and discuss various scenarios, but the future of food systems mainly lies in the hands of policy makers. Guidance by science on the one hand side and collection of impressions and knowledge from the ground seem to be assets to set up strong frameworks that would not only build back better but mostly build forward, together, within the planetary boundaries.

Expectations from the UNFSS are high, but as Joachim von Braun, Chair, Scientific Group of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021, rightly put it, “Even the Summit will not be the end”. According to the strategic paper of the Scientific Group, allocating 1% of a country’s GDP to the agri-food system sciences and innovations would make an impactful difference. While food producers, manufacturers, marketers are already building up alternatives from the ground, the rest of the world is hoping to get clear directives from the world’s leaders in September.

Reporting by Magdalena Knobel, MSc. Sustainable Food Systems and Communications Consultant at SIANI.