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Opinion Today's UN food summit in New York cannot become just another talking shop

Caoimhe de Barra of Trócaire says humanity must act as one on ending hunger and malnutrition.

WE ARE ALL familiar with the question “what’s for dinner?” In Ireland, most of us don’t give this question a second thought.

Food menus and what we eat are ultimately driven by our taste preferences, the availability and accessibility of foods, and power dynamics within households.

However, for people living in vulnerable communities around the world, the question “what’s for dinner” is an unwelcome reminder of empty food stores and arid landscapes that don’t yield crops, leading to an ongoing struggle to stave off hunger. It reflects the devastating impact of conflict, climate change and inequality.

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 report states that rates of hunger and malnutrition have increased drastically within the last year, exacerbated by Covid-19. Shockingly, around one in three people in our world, or 2.37 billion men, women and children, did not have access to adequate food in 2020, an increase of around 320 million people in one year.

Based on these trends the global ambition to deliver zero hunger by 2030, and achieve other nutrition targets, will not be met. Radical action is required.

A Summit for all?

The reality is that hunger and malnutrition are the result of policy failures, rather than food scarcity. Climate change and the relentless assault on biodiversity are drivers of hunger, along with increased conflict over scarce resources, including water and land that is essential for food production.

To make any real progress towards delivering zero hunger the global challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and rising inequality need to be tackled. And food systems have a central role to play in addressing these interconnected challenges.

So what is a food system?

In brief, it is the entire set of political, environmental, social, technical and economic factors that influence how people get access to and consume adequate, nutritious food. Reforming food systems is complex, but crucial for human and planetary survival and wellbeing.

This urgently needed reform was the reason for the declaration by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in 2019 that “transforming food systems is crucial for delivering all the Sustainable Development Goals”. He announced he would convene a UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) as a catalyst for decisive action. That Summit takes place today during the UN General Assembly in New York, and what is on the table at this crucial meeting is the subject of increasing controversy.

It is beyond time for a radical transformation of our industrial agriculture and food systems. Ireland will be represented at today’s Food Systems Summit. We and other world leaders must insist on change. If there isn’t agreement for decisive action the Summit will fail, and the world will be set up for a continuation of the status quo in food systems, and an increase in the millions of people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

There are systems that have succeeded in supplying large volumes of a relatively small number of foods to global markets. However, they have multiple side effects that are increasingly counter-productive, including the widespread degradation of natural resources; high greenhouse gas emissions; biodiversity loss and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.

Trócaire is concerned that instead of promoting social, economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture and food systems, the proposed solutions for today’s crucial Summit are concentrated on further privileging corporate/industrial farming interests.

For example, a leaked African Union ‘common position’ advances large scale industrialisation based on Green Revolution ideas that are no longer appropriate or sustainable. The vast majority of African food producers are peasant and small-scale farmers – and the majority of these farmers are women. They include indigenous peoples, fishers, pastoralists, and forest dwellers, all of whom play a key role in the continent’s food security.

Their experience and knowledge of regenerative farming that supports biodiversity, social equity and nutritious food production are not on the table at the Summit. The resulting corporate flavoured menu exposes failures in the Summit’s claim to be “a Peoples Summit” or a “Solutions Summit”.

Transforming agriculture for humanity

Addressing the UNFSS Pre-Summit in July, Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue stated that ending world hunger and ensuring the right to food for all remains a central pillar of Ireland’s foreign and development cooperation policies. These policies are underpinned by human rights-based approaches and a long-standing recognition of the value of established multilateral institutions.

Pursuing a sustainable transformation of agriculture and food that is grounded in a human rights framework entitles people to meaningful participation in the decisions that affect them.

This sustainable transformation also requires the empowerment of people, particularly those who are being left behind and giving them a voice in shaping policies.

Ultimately, Africa’s small-scale farmers, women farmers, and youth must have power over events and processes that determine their future. Unfortunately, the Food Systems Summit has been deemed lacking in this regard by a significant and growing number of rights holders.

Trócaire works in partnership with communities around the world who have been, and continue to be, marginalised by policies that hinder rather than enable a transition to more sustainable food systems.

An example of one such system being adopted by Trócaire with partners is agroecology, which applies ecological processes to agricultural production. This has the capacity to restore degraded natural resources, promote biodiversity and strengthen poor people’s resilience to climate and other shocks.

It is my hope that Ireland will use its voice at the Food Systems Summit to help bridge the deep divisions that have now emerged. Today, President Michael D Higgins will deliver Ireland’s statement at the UNFSS. Last week he met the Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN, (FAO) and stressed that discussions about food systems should focus not only on production but also on the cultural, ecological and heritage dimensions.

He highlighted that indigenous people, comprising less than 5% of the world’s population, currently protect 80% of global biodiversity – and stressed the importance of learning lessons from their management of natural resources.

Let us hope that member states’ at today’s Summit take heed – and more importantly, take decisive action.  The Summit can take a critical first step to developing a genuinely inclusive menu of transformative food systems options. And thus make some real progress towards achieving zero hunger by 2030. Meanwhile, the shocking but avoidable reality is that millions around the world are going hungry, each and every day.

Caoimhe de Barra is CEO of Trócaire.

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