Skip to content
Start of page content below the header
10 November 2021
Food systems

Impressions and thoughts on the United Nations Food Systems Summit


Farmer in the field, Anad, India

Photo: Nandhu Kumar / Unsplash

Throughout the year, SIANI has not only been following the process leading up to the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), but has also been an integral part of it, convening three national dialogues. Furthermore, we have reported on the Science Days, provided an overview of the Summit’s structure, as well as attended the Summit. As the Summit has come to an end and we now look forward to implementing national pathways and initiatives to contribute to the transformation of our food systems, we want to understand how others perceived the UNFSS and the steps that need to be taken to achieve this change. As such, we reached out to four persons from our SIANI member and partner bases who work closely with issues tied to our food systems, in order to gather their opinions and thoughts. These persons are as follows: Mats Åberg, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Anna Richert, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Katarina Eriksson, Tetra Laval, and Diana San José, Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme. In this article we present their perspectives on the topic.

Main impressions of the United Nations Food Systems Summit

To begin with, we asked the interviewees about their impressions of the UNFSS. All four brought up how this series of events ensured that for the first time, a global and holistic perspective was adopted to discuss food systems. In the discussions during the UNFSS, food systems were viewed as broad, socio-ecological systems which have interlinkages to a multitude of areas that require development, including climate change mitigation and climate change resilience. More so, the transformation of food systems was widely recognised as crucial for sustainable development.

Our interviewees further highlighted how the UNFSS had succeeded in mobilising and engaging a variety of actors through preparatory activities, and the participation of a high number of state representatives was especially noteworthy. This diverse engagement has generated a momentum – with the establishment of new proposals and coalitions for food system transformation – which will hopefully remain and be built on.

However, despite these positive aspects, the interviewees also raised concern regarding accountability. There are questions remaining about who will be responsible for realising the proposals and commitments made during the UNFSS processes. The interviewees also discussed the role of the coalitions created during the UNFSS journey, and the power relations and ownership therein. It was for example mentioned that there is a lack of clarity in regard to coalition leadership.

Furthermore, the interviewees raised the question of inclusion. In contrast to the process leading up to the Summit, where a broad range of actors were encouraged to participate in and organise dialogues, it was expressed that the Summit itself focused on member states and their national commitments. Additionally, they pointed out that controversy persists regarding how inclusive the UNFSS process had been to begin with. Here, our interviewees point out that to achieve equitable food systems transformation, the question of inclusion and equal participation is of outmost importance to engage with.

“It is important that all stakeholders that have valuable insights and experiences within food systems are gathering at the same table. This includes, for example, Civil Society Organisations who advocate for Indigenous rights, but also representatives from the private sector – which farmers’ organisations are a part of.” (Mats Åberg, Sida)

”Wir haben es satt” demonstration, Berlin, Germany

Photo: Aktion Agrar / flickr

Impact of the United Nations Food Systems Summit within specific contexts

So, what impacts did, and will the UNFSS have within the interviewees’ own local contexts? There is hope the commitments made will lead to concrete action and cooperation across different multilateral levels. However, at the same time, it was stressed that the impact of the UNFSS will largely depend on the engagement of actors other than the UN agencies. In fact, food systems transformation will rather come down to the effectiveness of national and regional strategies, as well as key food system players who will draw on the knowledge generated and shared through the Summit process.

Additionally, in relation to the emphasis placed on science during the UNFSS, it was discussed how it is crucial to define which sciences one relies on, i.e., how knowledge is sourced, and what qualifies as ‘science’. Here, it was stressed that protecting communities’ intellectual property rights is key. Diana San José asks:

“How can science and traditional ecological knowledge work together and have partnerships based on trust?”

Steps toward transformation

For the last part of our interviews, we asked our interviewees about the next steps they believe should be taken to achieve a sustainable food systems transformation. In our discussions, a number of areas which need to be considered in this transformation were brought up. Firstly, political agendas were mentioned, whereby food systems and their transformation must be discussed as part of various sectoral strategies, both at national and international levels. Secondly, it was expressed that there is a need for mechanisms to follow-up and evaluate the outcomes of the UNFSS. Thirdly, it was felt that media has a greater role to play in further engaging persons in food systems transformation. Unfortunately, the UNFSS, despite its large-scale size and months of events, gained very little general media coverage. Fourthly, the respondents discussed the need for the trickling down of knowledge and the scaling up of initiatives. One of the major problems within formal scientific research is that scientific findings rarely reach those who are in most need of the benefits they can generate. At the same time, local knowledge and traditions with proven value should be upscaled – this requires investment and further capacity support. On this note, and fifthly, the interviewees further mentioned the need for more general financial investments and support to achieve food systems transformation. Food systems actors may, for example, require access to credits or financial advice. Lastly, special emphasis was placed on the need for critical thinking in the process of achieving food systems transformation. It is key to regard for the unprecedented and indirect consequences of various initiatives, as well as to question one’s preconceived ideas and understanding of interrelated mechanisms and power relations.

Where do we go from here?

The UNFSS was a series of events that was the first of its kind and succeeded in bringing together actors from all different sectors, multilateral levels, and countries. However, it is now crucial that the momentum gained during the UNFSS is sustained by all parties involved and acted upon. The UNFSS has not led to a common set of clear and concrete global goals which can be followed up on. We are missing a sort of “Food Systems Paris Agreement”- however, the UNFSS has led to national pathways and strategies, together with coalitions, that aim to contribute to a sustainable food systems transformation.

Within these strategies and initiatives, it is imperative that valuable research reaches those who are in most urgent need of its potential benefits. Additionally, we must ensure that local and traditional knowledge which can benefit society is upscaled while the intellectual property rights of communities who produce this knowledge, are protected. Here, UN organisations may not have the ability to ultimately define national or regional policies. Still, they can provide advice to and support governments and local entities, as well as assist projects with financial resources. To further increase engagement with food systems and their transformation, media must extend coverage on the topic. Here, we at SIANI, will continue to ignite and facilitate discussions between food system actors, while ensuring that all voices are heard. The table has just been set for further commitments and concrete action.

The news story 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). Interviewees were approached by Ebba and Josefine.

Liknande innehåll