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How does the UN Food Systems Summit work? An overview

Photo: Layland Masuda / GettyImages.

Across the globe, private, public, and civil society actors are getting ready for the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021, planned to take place in New York in September, preceded by a Pre-Summit in Rome in July. Ahead of the Summit, working groups have been formed across the globe, and events are taking place, including seminars, forums and dialogues, which will provide the basis for the discussions at the Summit. These events bring together people of diverse backgrounds and with a wide array of experiences to engage in the discussion about what needs to be done to ensure healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food systems for all.

If you have looked at the Food System Summit process, you might have realised that it is a rather complex web of components. How are these components connected? What role will they play in the Summit? More so, how can you get involved? This article aims to answer these questions by describing the structure of the Summit’s interface. Additionally, the article points out how you and your organisation can get involved in your region and how to contribute to the Summit on a more general front.

Overarching categorical structure

The Summit will contribute to the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is nested under the Decade of Action. The Summit is guided by its seven Principles of Engagement; 1. Act with urgency, 2. Commit to the Summit, 3. Be respectful, 4. Recognise complexity, 5. Embrace multi-stakeholder inclusivity, 6. Complement the work of others, and 7. Build trust.

The Summit’s components can be organised into three major categories, in accordance with the information found on the official UN Food Systems Summit (FSS) website. These are as follows: Leadership, Communities, and Activities. The outputs from the working groups and other engagements are classified between, and sometimes across these categories.

The Leadership consists of working groups that help move the Summit toward its vision. The Communities include a wide array of actors, engagements, and overarching themes, which have different purposes. On the UN FSS website, each of these Communities has a public discussion platform. The Activities component includes planned events that people can partake to contribute to the UN FSS process and to the transformation of our food systems in general.

The overall structure of the Leadership, Communities, and Activities components is summarised in the diagram below.

Representation of the UN FSS structural components and their categorical interlinkagesDesignMiriam SturdeeSIANI 


The Leadership structure of the Summit is comprised of key players who drive the processFirstly, this includes the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit Dr. Agnes Kalibata. Secondly, the Leadership includes the Advisory Committee, which provides strategic guidance and feedback on the Summit’s overall development and implementation. Thirdly, it includes the Scientific Groupmade up of leading independent researchers and scientists who are to ensure the rigour, objectivity, and breadth of the scientific base of the Summit. Lastly, the Leadership includes the UN Task Force, which seeks to, “ensure that the Summit can build on the knowledge and unique capabilities of the entire UN system to deliver on the food systems agenda beyond the Summit.”

The Leadership structure provided room for potential engagement from researchers and scientists to work with the Scientific Group to produce briefs or papers that support the Summit agenda. The drafts for these papers were to be submitted by approved partnered researchers or research groups by the 20th of March, 2021. Read the scientific briefs.


The Communities structure comprises wide range of teamsguiding directives, and engagementsall of which have a public discussion platform on the UN FSS website. 


The Teams structural element includes the Scientific Group, which is also part of the Leadership category. The teams also include the Champions Networkwhich is composed of the Summit’s Food System Heroes and Food Systems Champions.

The Champions Network is formed by individuals who have proven – and are proving – leadership in advancing food systems transformation. In fact, anyone can commit to becoming a Food Systems Hero, if they aim to, learn, share, gather and act for better food systems in their communities and more broadly”. The Food System Champions are instead, “network and institutional leaders from across the food system who commit to mobilizing their networks, sharing information, and taking action to support the Summit“.

The Food System Champions have already been selected. The work of the Food Systems Heroes and the Champions Network is embedded in the vision of the Summit and will contribute to on-the-ground challenges and solutions. Sign up as a Food Systems Hero.

Guiding Directives

The Summit is organised into five Action Tracks. Each Action Track aims to tackle and generate solutions for certain challenge area of food systems. These Action Tracks guide different activities, such as the Summit Dialogues. The Action Tracks are 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 stresses 

It is worth mentioning that the Action Tracks and the process behind their selection, have been met with criticism. The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) expressed that the Summit has largely accounted for corporate views regarding food systems development, whilst missing a sturdy footing in human rights. Therefore, the CSM asked that the analysis of all Action Tracks (and the Summit Dialogues which contribute to these), and potential policy recommendations generated from these consultations, include the realisation of human rights.

Each of the Action Tracks has a different chair who is responsible for the work associated with the given challenge area. More so, each country’s national dialogue is specific to a given Action Track, for example the Swedish National Dialogue contributed to Action Track 2, focusing on the shift to sustainable consumption patterns.

Cutting across the five Action Tracks there are four Levers of Change. These are cross-cutting themethat hold great potential for transforming the food system and for the implementation of the  Sustainable Development Goals. The four levers of change are gender, human rights, finance, and innovation. 


As part of the Communities, and overlapping with the Activities, the Summit Dialogues are key engagements with various scopes. These are held at various organisational levels and some are open for public participation. These are discussed in the next section.


Activities are planned events contributing to UN FSS or to the field of sustainable food systems in generalThe Summit Dialogues are part of this category and a key point of public engagement. These dialogues take on three different forms to bring forward voices from different parts of society:

  • Independent Summit Dialogues – can be organised by any individual or organisation. 
  • Member State Summit Dialogues – are organised by national governments and can be byinvitationonly events. 
  • Global Summit Dialogues – are co-convened by Dr. Agnes Kalibata and take place alongside key global events on climate, biodiversity, environment, nutrition, the ocean, economies, and related issues within the 2030 Agenda that have connections to food systems.

Have a look at the scheduled dialogues posted on the UN FSS website to find events focused on a region you live in or that is of your interest. Additionally, there are dialogue manuals and trainings to support those who would like to convene or facilitate dialogue.

Public forums are another form of public engagement activity. Each of the public forums focuses on a certain Action Track. The public forums have been and are announced here. Lastly, the UN FSS website also hosts listings of additional, external events regarding sustainable food systems development.

The dialogues, forums and external events are announced and advertised on the UN FSS event website. 


There are several outputs and intended outcomes from the UN FSS and its supporting events. Firstly, there is a requirement to report back from each of the Summit Dialogues and to fill out official feedback forms. The reporting and feedback forms are submitted to the Summit and assessed- with reported findings to be incorporated into the discussions at the Summit.

The Member State Summit Dialogues will also feed into national strategies and governmental initiatives. The insights gathered through national dialogues will provide input and suggestions for policy design and implementation. Additionally, it will also affect the positioning of each member state at various UN meetings. 

Lastly, the Pre-Summit and Summit, and the discussions held at these events in July and September, will provide a framework and lay the foundation for further commitments by countries and other stakeholders to contribute to sustainable food systems. The discussions will feedback into the national strategies and governmental initiatives of the UN FSS member states, to support policy design and implementation of sustainable food systems development.


This article outlines the structure of the UN FSS and describes the network of various components included in this structure. We hope that this will facilitate understanding of the UN FSS processAs described, there are many Leadership actors, Communities, and Activities that are laying the groundwork for the Summit (and its Pre-Summit). However, the structure and interconnections within it are still unfoldingAs such, we will continue to keep you posted about new developments surrounding the UN FSS, as well as other news related to the topic of food systems. 

Visit the SIANI Food Systems page.

Written by Ebba Engström, Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute, SEI, and Magdalena Knobel, Communications Consultant at SIANI.